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Eclectic Crowds, Electric Talk on Nader's 'Left Coast' Swing


SANTA BARBARA — The curly-haired woman, a retired children's librarian, can't remember when she voted last, but come November she vows to find her polling place in San Luis Obispo.

"Only because of Nader," said Maggie Gold, 62, at a house party in the majestic hills above Santa Barbara. "Finally there is someone who has principles. It's like he says: We have to vote our hopes, not our fears."

On a weeklong swing through the "left coast"--where his polling numbers have had some Democratic leaders biting their nails--Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader stirred up his citizen army with talk of 1 million voters giving 100 hours and $100 a year to change American politics.

His audience is the disenfranchised and disenchanted but goes beyond the predictable barefoot and Birkenstock-shod Greens.

At several California campaign stops this week were engineers and students, homemakers and immigrants, men in business suits and women in chic designer outfits. At one stop a new Jaguar sported a Kelly green "Nader for president" sticker on its chrome bumper.

More than a few who came said their friends think they are "crazy" for supporting Nader, warning they're taking votes from Democrat Al Gore and, in effect, giving them to Republican George W. Bush.

Even so, many Nader supporters--the majority of them Democrats--are drawn to Nader's message, greeting his denunciations of corporate excess and Washington lobbyists with hissing and groans.

Nader is polling nationally at about 3%. In California, his post-Democratic National Convention numbers have shrunk to 4%, down from 7% in June. But his numbers have been higher in the Northwest, where he will campaign this weekend, as well as in pockets of the Midwest and New England.

The goal, he says repeatedly in his quixotic campaign, is to win enough votes--at least 5% in the general election--to fortify a watchdog political movement with federal funding in the next presidential election.

Others argue that a Nader vote makes a point regardless of who wins in November.

"Most of the people in the room don't care about throwing away their vote. They don't give a damn about the 5%," said John Ulloth, who helped organize a packed rally Monday night just east of downtown Los Angeles in Highland Park. "They're just so tired of politics as usual."

What Nader offers is unvarnished populism and some standard-issue liberal outrage.

He calls Gore "cowardly" for knowing about serious environmental problems and doing little. He says the main beneficiary of an improved education system in Texas might be Bush himself.

To great cheers at intimate house party fund-raisers and boisterous outdoor rallies, he asks what enemy of America still exists to justify a $300-billion Pentagon budget. He asks why corporate executives pay themselves 416 times what an entry-level worker makes, when in 1940 their pay was only 12 times higher.

That last statistic was too much for Charity Luv Colbert of Santa Monica. "Oh my God!" she said. Others gasped. When Nader asked those gathered if they will reject the two parties he calls the "Republicrats" and instead vote their conscience, many rose to their feet shouting, "Yes!"

At a San Diego-area home with a panoramic view of the ocean and trays of soy cheese quesadillas and tofu cookies for the tasting, Liza Szabo, a psychotherapist in her 30s who lives in La Jolla, volunteers that she has never voted.

"I'm going to now," she said. "I came here to listen to him and I hear him saying something different. The other guys, it just seems like a battle, a power struggle. It's not about the real issues."

For others, such as New York writer Bob Levis, Nader represents an end to a political journey. On vacation in San Diego, Levis has been both a registered Republican and Democrat but voted for Reform Party founder Ross Perot in 1996.

He was one of the "mad as hell and not going take it anymore" folks who gave Texas billionaire Perot 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 election and 8% in 1996. But he and others say Nader offers more than the chance to cast a protest vote, giving them a comprehensive ideological platform they can get behind.

"It's the first time since I've been voting where there has been an actual choice," said Levis, who first punched a ballot in 1960.

But with only a fraction of Perot's resources--the Nader campaign says they so far have raised only half of their $5-million goal--attracting votes may prove hard.

At the Highland Park rally, where the crowd poured into the aisles and onto the stage, Nader took an informal survey, asking how many had voted Republican, Democratic, Green or not at all in the past.

Nader says he can draw votes from across the political spectrum, but most of those who raised hands were Democrats.

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