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Welcome To Nader-Nader Land

Al Gore may want to heed the fate of the Chevy Corvair.

A young lawyer named Ralph Nader essentially killed off the sports car in 1965 with his book Unsafe at Any Speed, which deemed the automobile's design unstable and unsafe to drive. Now Nader wants to convince American voters that the current two-party system is unsafe for democracy.

Democrat Gore could get sideswiped in Nader's bid for president under the Green Party banner. A national poll by Zogby International earlier this month shows the famed consumer advocate pulling about 9 percent of the vote in the west. That could spell trouble for the vice president in California, a state he needs to win to reach the White House.

Though the numbers are based on a small sub-sample of voters, Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman gives the Zogby poll a lot of credence. "Whenever we've tested Ralph Nader, he polls quite well (among) swing voters," said Kaufman.

The former adviser for the Bradley campaign in California says Gore will suffer most if those voters turn out in November. Kaufman also cites private polls which show that George W. Bush are currently running a lot closer in California than most people would imagine.

Pollster John Zogby says his survey is especially significant considering that Nader won 2 percent of the vote in 1996 in California after vowing not to campaign or raise money. This year, Nader has said he'll compete.

"Nader coming in and getting 9 or 10 percent of the vote could throw California into a tizzy," says Zogby, who sees Nader cutting into Gore's support base of liberals and environmentalists.

Nader also appeals to young voters (who see him as "retro cool" according to Zogby), older voters and supporters of John McCain, who were drawn to the Arizona senator's straight-talking style.

Zogby said voters see many of the same qualities in Nader that they saw in McCain. "Ralph Nader, to some people, is the world's last honest man," said Zogby.

Ross Mirkarimi, a San Francisco prosecutor and adviser to Nader's California campaign, sees Nader appealing to independents, disenchanted democrats and Bill Bradley Democrats. "It's a huge potpourri of people from left to the center," said Mirkarimi.

Despite the perception that voters enjoying a strong economy might reject a radical redirection for the country - see Bradley's failed campaign - Mirkarimi insists Nader's followers see room for improvement. "You're calling (the mood) content, we're calling it complacent," said Mirkarimi.

Trade is one issue that could shake up the current presidential debate. Nader strongly opposes NAFTA (which both Gore and Bush support) and might siphon off some of the energy ignited by recent protests against the IMF and the World Trade Organization.

"Over the past 20 yers, big business has increasingly dominated our political economy," said Nader in announcing his candidacy for president. "This control by the corporate government over our political government is creating a widening 'democracy gap.'"

Zogby's poll also suggests the majority of Americans want to see Nader (and Buchanan) included in the televised presidential debates next fall. If that happens, there will be no hiding from the activist and the uncomfortable issues he raises.

"If Nader gets in the debate, everybody's world will be rocked," predicts Mirkarimi of the Nader campaign.

There's a chance that Buchanan's draw of conservatives from George W. Bush may cancel out Nader's pull on liberals from Gore. And not even Mirkarimi thinks Nader will make it to the ballot in all 50 states.

But even if the consumer crusader isn't on a fast track to the White House, he could still pose a threat - at any speed.

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