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A month before the U.S. presidential election, Ralph Nader is running something that bears a remarkable resemblance to a real presidential campaign. The Green party candidate is on the road every day preaching the gospel of the progressive left to worshipful masses.

He has raised over $3.5 million, largely plunked down in individual $5 and $10 contributions, and has attracted what his campaign says are the largest paying crowds of any candidate, including over 10,000 in Portland and Boston and 12,000 in Minneapolis. He flies coach class from one engagement to the next, often sardined between business travellers who don’t recognize the celebrity in their midst.

Perhaps the most conspicuous difference between Nader and his rivals is that he freely admits he has no expectation of winning. Instead, he says he’s running to plant a political seed, bringing visibility to the Green party to help it elect local candidates and become a viable third party.

“Most third parties come in with a single issue, get a few votes, lose and then fade away,” Nader said between stops on a Midwest campaign swing last month.

“The Green party is not going to fade away. It has too broad an agenda. That’s why the press doesn’t get this campaign.”

The Green party indeed has as broad an agenda as Nader asserts, but for a presidential run it may be too broad. Talks with state coordinators and organizers for the campaign reveal a vast and contradictory set of goals.

Like Nader, many see the campaign as a first step in building a strong national party reinforced by local elected officeholders. Others are more focused on snaring 5 per cent of the popular vote in order to procure federal matching funds for another presidential run in 2004 – a goal for which Nader says he has never expressed support.

Wild optimists

Some Greens say they are trying to pull the Democratic party leftward, while others cling to the extreme long-shot vision of Nader winning the election. As his campaign churns toward November, it sometimes seems entangled in a web of confusion that’s throttling its own momentum.

On one end of the spectrum are wild optimists like Colorado state coordinator Nancy Harvey, who works close to the fiery hearth of Nader support. A typically enthusiastic Green diehard, she’s a middle-aged progressive who’s been involved in the party for 13 years. Intelligent, articulate and well-informed, she nevertheless admits to a fantasy of Nader winning in a November shocker.

“Based on the enthusiasm of the campaign here in Colorado and the numbers he’s pulling at these ‘super-rallies,’ I think his message is reaching people,” she says. “If he got into the debates, we could pull something like (the success of governor) Jesse Ventura in Minnesota.”

There are even true believers who argue that Nader is already headed for the White House, with or without the debates. After a stadium rally in Minneapolis, local organizer Dean Zimmerman was inspired enough to predict Nader would win by a slight margin by taking the states where he has the strongest support – Oregon, Washington, California, Minnesota, Colorado, Vermont and Maine – although he hasn’t polled support close to that for the two major party candidates in any of them.

Nader states flatly that he has no expectation of winning the presidency. Nevertheless, he continually stokes the fires of hope in ardent supporters by reminding them of Ventura’s debate-driven Reform party triumph in 1998.

Epic victory

But by mythologizing that epic victory – which happened in a mid-sized state with a strong taste for the politically unique – it seems Nader has inadvertently convinced some Greens to focus on a similar possibility.

The most muddled message emanating from the Nader campaign is about whether its intention is to form a viable, permanent third party or to drive the Democratic party leftward. One ubiquitous Nader sound bite calls on the Democratic party to either “shape up or shrink down” – implying that if the Democrats “shape up” they stand a chance of recovering the support of the progressive left.

But in a recent interview, Nader said it was his hunch that “the Democratic party under its present dominance and indentured status to business interests is not going to reform. I don’t think they’re capable of internal change. I’ve been waiting too long for that to happen.”

Excerpted from a story that appeared on

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