WASHINGTON (AFP) — A collective groan could almost be heard echoing around the Democratic Party headquarters this week with the news that consumer champion Ralph Nader was back and considering another shot at the White House.
His name alone is enough to send even the most mild-mannered Democrats into paroxysms of rage, still smarting from their defeat in 2000 when George W. Bush won the election by beating Al Gore in Florida by just 537 votes.
Standing as a Green party candidate, Nader took some 97,000 votes in the Sunshine State, triggering outrage among Democrats who believed he had siphoned off ballots from Gore.
Vote "raider" and "spoiler" were some of the more printable names hurled at Nader by his critics.
"Political bigot," shot back Nader this week, as he launched a presidential exploratory committee to see if he can attract enough support and funds to launch his fifth bid for the White House as an independent.
"They scapegoated me," Nader told AFP in an interview. "They are congenitally unable of avoiding the scapegoat tag. Instead they should look in the mirror and ask why they lost."
Nader, 73, has long built a reputation as a tough and stubborn champion of consumer rights in the United States.
In the 1960s, he took on the auto industry with his book "Unsafe At Any Speed." The book and his hard-headed investigations led to the country's first car safety laws and he is credited with making selt-belts mandatory here.
After winning a lawsuit against General Motors, Nader ploughed the money into his consumer rights campaign.
Over the decades, he turned his sights on the country's rigid two-party political system, taking on the White House to present voters with an alternative to the endless Democrat-Republicans duet.
"One of our priorities is civil liberties and the candidates' right to get on the ballot," Nader said.
"When 98 percent of people voted for the president in the Soviet Union, whose name was the only one on the ballot, everybody laughed. But in 90 percent of votes for the House of Representatives there is essentially only one candidate."
It's an argument that has been finding some sway with voters, especially after the 2000 election debacle.
Non-profit organization the Reform Institute, set up in 2001, points to the number of independent, non-affiliated voters turning up this year as proof of a growing disquiet with the US two-party system.
"I think you have more and more voters who are unhappy with the two major parties, and they want to have a choice," said communications director Chris Dreibelbis.
"It depends on a lot of factors, but I think the possibility exists this time round for an independent candidate to do very well."
Nader's first hurdle will be to get enough signatures in each state to get his name on the November ballot.
The rules vary from state to state. In Florida he would need to get some 104,000 signatures, while in Rhode Island he would need just 1,000.
To do that requires a fine-tuned organizational structure as well as money, something independent candidates lack, giving the established parties a distinct edge.
But Nader is hoping that his message, pressing for a fair living wage, for union rights, for health care for all and for an end to corporate fraud and bloated government spending, could find resonance.
"These are core issues. They are a major dimension that politicians should be addressing," Nader said, arguing that the Democratic Party has failed over the years to listen to voters' concerns.
But if in a month's time after testing the waters he does decide to run, Democrats will undoubtedly be left seething.
"I just think the man needs to go away. I think he needs to live in a different country. He's done enough damage to this one; let him damage someone else's now," says columnist Eric Alterman in a 2006 documentary about Nader entitled "An Unreasonable Man."
"Thank you Ralph for the Iraq war, thank you Ralph for the tax cuts, thank you Ralph for the destruction of the environment, thank you Ralph for the destruction of the constitution."
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