Washington Consumer advocate Ralph Nader announced Sunday he was running again for president, this time as an independent, and rejected claims that a longshot candidacy would merely siphon enough votes from the Democrats to ensure President Bush's re-election.
But Nader's decision was greeted with a chorus of condemnation from Democrats, longtime friends and former supporters who blame him for Al Gore's loss four years ago. They suggested that Nader would not pull close to the 2.7 percent of the vote he won before without the backing of an established party and some of his past supporters.
Republicans resisted the temptation to gloat as GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie proclaimed that Bush would win a second term no matter who ran. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said, "It will make less difference than the Democrats fear, but I know they're very nervous about it."
In getting into the White House sweepstakes, Nader declared that Washington has become "corporate occupied territory" and he accused both Democrats and Republicans of being dominated by corporate lobbyists who "care little" about the needs of ordinary Americans.
"It's a question between both parties flunking," Nader said on NBC's "Meet the Press," where he chose to make his announcement. He asserted that "it's time to change the equation and bring millions of American people into the political arena."
Nader said he would mount a national campaign as an independent to highlight issues he claims the major parties are ignoring, including universal health care, rising poverty and environmental concerns.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who personally urged Nader not to run, called the decision "unfortunate."
"You know, he's had a whole distinguished career, fighting for working families, and I would hate to see part of his legacy being that he got us eight years of George Bush," McAuliffe said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico minced no words. "It's a total act of ego," he said.
Liberal Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders, the only independent in the House and a longtime Nader friend, called Nader's decision "counterproductive." Even the Green Party, whose banner Nader carried four years ago, chose to focus on its own priorities.
"Our midterm goal is the creation of a multiparty political system and the participation of a strong Green Party in that system," said Ben Manski, the party's co-chairman.
But Nader dismissed his critics among "the liberal intelligentsia," and called the spoiler moniker "contemptuous."
"It shows how hostage they are to the antiquated electoral system and how unwilling they are to oppose and change it," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I would urge them to calm down, start reflecting, be tolerant of democracy and freedom and watch events unfold since we're all on the same page of wanting to retire our supremely elected president, George W. Bush."
Nader predicted he would get more net votes from conservatives and liberal Republicans dissatisfied with Bush's record than from registered Democrats.
Democratic officials on Sunday claimed that Nader has promised not criticize the Democratic nominee but, rather, focus his ammunition on the Bush administration. Nader acknowledged the pledge but said it did not mean he would refrain from criticizing Democrats if they attack him. "I'm not going to avoid responding," he told the AP.
Nader, who scheduled a news conference today to discuss his issues, said he planned to begin campaigning this week on Bush's home turf of Texas, where he will focus on Bush's record.
As the Green Party's nominee in 2000, Nader appeared on the ballot in 43 states and Washington, D.C., garnering nearly 3 percent of the vote. But in Florida and New Hampshire, Bush won such narrow victories that had Gore received the bulk of Nader's votes in either state, the Democrat would have won the general election.
Nader's decision not to seek the Green Party's nomination has raised doubts that he can get on many state ballots without a party organization or major financial resources. An independent needs about 700,000 signatures to get on the ballot in all 50 states, a prospect that Nader likened to "climbing a cliff with a slippery slope."
Nader said his exploratory committee had raised about $150,000 in the past five months. He said he was confident he could raise more than the $8 million he received last time using the same Internet fund-raising strategies that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean employed before dropping out of the race. Nader will rely on small contributions and refuse money from corporations and political action committees.
Campaigning in Atlanta, Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry said, "I'm going to appeal to everybody in this race and we'll make it unnecessary in the end for an alternative." Kerry's rival North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said he could attract many of Nader's progressive followers. "It will not impact my campaign," he said. "People are looking for someone who can beat George Bush."