WASHINGTON – Ralph Nader has always been a solitary figure, and as he winds down his third presidential campaign, the independent candidate is more isolated than ever, down to a small cadre of family and hard-core acolytes.

It’s a far cry from 2000, when he once filled Madison Square Garden with enthusiastic followers.

But Nader, registering 1 percent in most polls, may still play kingmaker or spoiler again, depending upon your point of view. With as many as 10 states considered tossups, Nader may well reprise his 2000 role when he won 97,488 votes in Florida and was blamed for denying Democrat Al Gore the presidency.

Not that it concerns him.

“If all candidates have an equal chance to get votes, then we are all spoilers of one another,” he said in an interview.

Nader will cap his anti-corporate campaign Monday by venturing to New York’s Wall Street to deflate a 20-foot corporate pig.

To some it will seem pathetic, to others heroic, but Nader does not see himself as a lonely, out-of-touch figure.

He has a typically wry comeback for those who accuse him of having a Don Quixote complex by insisting upon running for president in the face of so much animosity, especially from his former left-wing friends, who hate the idea that Nader might drain votes from John Kerry and thus tip a close election to President Bush.

“Don Quixote is best known for tilting at windmills,” said Nader. “I’m a major advocate of wind power.” More seriously, he added: “Our country is known for quixotic efforts that are successful – eventually.”

Allan J. Lichtman, a historian at American University, thinks the imagery is fitting. “I think he is Don Quixote – with no real connection to the real world. If he was making some progress, it would be a different story. It’s a personal crusade.”

Nader has run a curious two-part campaign attacking Bush on the Iraq war, corporate crime and inadequate health care, yet also criticizing Democratic nominee John Kerry for not pressing Nader’s issues more ardently against Bush.

At a recent news conference, a French reporter was so confused that he asked Nader if he really wants people to vote for him. Nader says he does, but he also wants to defeat Bush, and that Kerry should not get the votes of the left without meeting some demands.

“Just doing what I’m doing is winning,” Nader insists.

Nader’s decision to run as an independent in 2004 instead of seeking the Green Party nomination – which he won in 1996 and 2000 – forced him to use time, energy and about $1 million to get on state ballots. A state-by-state battle with Democrats over getting his name on ballots dragged into court in a dozen states and resulted in his being on only 34 state ballots and the District of Columbia’s.

Nader said that he will never forget how Democrats, many his longtime allies on consumer and health issues, went after him.

He insists that he draws support from Republicans as well as Democrats and that at least one poll shows his supporters split evenly between the major parties, although Florida exit polls in 2000 showed that his supporters would have voted 2 to 1 for Gore.

“He clearly cost Al Gore the presidency,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. This year, despite having descended from being “an icon in the ‘60s” to “fringe” now, Sabato said that “Nader might make a difference” in swing states.

Nader has had some embarrassing moments on the trail. He went on “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO July 30 to meet filmmaker Michael Moore, a former Naderite, and found both Maher and Moore on their knees, begging him to quit.

Nader’s reaction: “I pity them.”

At 70, the tall, rangy, usually rumpled Nader still looks a lot like the intense, idealistic lawyer who started the consumer movement in the 1960s.

He took on the auto industry over safety, specifically General Motor’s Corvair, and became the subject of a harassment campaign by the automaker, which ultimately apologized and paid Nader a settlement.

“I’ve done this since day one,” he said, “There’s nothing like being lonely when you’re up against G.M. There was no one with me then. People thought it was tilting at windmills.”



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