Washington — Ralph Nader ended his Green Party presidential bid the way he started, pushing for every vote and brushing off Democrats' complaints that he was helping Republican George W. Bush.
"You can't spoil a system spoiled to the core," he said to a standing-room crowd in the ballroom of the National Press Club.
"What we know for sure is that we're coming out of this Election Day with the third-largest party in America, replacing the Reform Party, and going on and building a long-term, progressive, reform movement," he said. "That's really quite an achievement."
Nader awaited Tuesday night's returns with more than 500 supporters who broke into chants of "Go, Ralph, Go!" He addressed the group standing next to his two sisters, a niece and his mother, Rose Nader, who blew the crowd a kiss.
Nader, the consumer advocate turned presidential candidate, kept up his appeals for supporters to "vote their conscience," even in states with close races between Democrat Al Gore and Bush.
Nader appeared to be a factor in just such states, according to exit polls in Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon and Wisconsin. His best showing, however, appeared to be in Alaska, a state rich with independent voters.
Exit polls suggested that more than half of Nader voters overall a chunk of them independents would have voted for Gore if it had been a two-way race. But nearly one in three said they simply would not have voted.
Voters were interviewed as they left the polls by Voter News Service, a consortium of The Associated Press and the television networks.
Nader needed 5 percent of the national vote to qualify his Green Party for federal campaign funds in the 2004 elections. He had hovered just below that mark in national polls but had registered higher in some states.
Fearing Nader's popularity would cost Gore the election, Democrats told Nader supporters that "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."
Mary Francis of Milwaukee didn't buy that argument.
"You can't vote out of guilt. You have to stand up for your convictions," said Francis, 46, who voted for Nader because of his environmental record. "I just think he has showed us his whole life what he stands for."
But Lynette Yencho of St. Paul, Minn., voted for Gore just to be on the safe side.
"I would have voted for Nader, but I couldn't stand the thought of Bush getting elected," she said.
Nader's perceived role as a potential spoiler also put him under pressure from longtime friends and allies once closely aligned with his progressive views.
But he remained defiant and unapologetic, urging people to support a "viable third party" that would serve as a watchdog for Republicans and Democrats long after Election Day.
"I did not run for president to help elect one or the other of the two major candidates," Nader said earlier Tuesday during a news conference in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
Nader's long-shot campaign emphasized his criticism of big business and the two-party political system. He has long insisted that no major differences exist between the Democrats and the Republicans or their presidential candidates.
"The two parties have morphed into a corporate party representing the same business interests at the same dinners, at the same hotels, day after day after day," he said.
Nader felt his candidacy was badly hurt by his exclusion from the presidential debates. Sponsors required 15 percent support in national polls. Yet, he campaigned aggressively, holding rock concert-like rallies that attracted thousands of people paying an average of $10 apiece in Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, Washington and other cities.
Nader is best known as the consumer advocate who in the 1960s took on the automobile industry's safety standards. Since then, he has pushed for automatic seat belts and other safety devices in cars and for passage of federal legislation to improve the air, food, water and the environment.