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Miles to Go

So why hasn't Gore -- who Nader says once signed a book with "To my friend, Ralph Nader" -- done so? "No one has really asked him to do it," Nader replies.

And then he adds, "I wish he would."

* * *

In theory, Nader could cause trouble, particularly in closely contested states such as Ohio and Florida. Yet it's hard to see that happening.

In 2000, as the Green Party candidate, he drew 2.74 percent of the total, or 2.88 million votes, the most he's ever attracted. As an independent candidate in 2004 (he walked away from the Greens, frustrated by party infighting), Nader practically disappeared. His total slipped to 0.38 percent (465,560 votes), as Democratic Party operatives launched legal challenges to keep him off some state ballots. The 2008 race looks like even more, and even less, of the same.

Forget the political calculus. Obama, the most liberal candidate that Democrats have (presumptively) nominated in years, figures to cut deeply into Nader's natural base of support among reform-minded liberals. Nader has other issues working against him, such as limited campaign funds and limited media attention. He expects to be excluded from the presidential debates, which are run, he notes, by a nonprofit corporation funded by companies that lobby the federal government.

Just as important, ballot issues again could make it difficult for people to vote for Nader. A welter of state election laws work against independent candidates, says Richardson, Nader's ballot-access coordinator. Billionaires such as Ross Perot, Richardson says, can "buy their way on" by hiring signature-gathering firms to gin up petitions. But a thinly capitalized candidate such as Nader has an uphill fight. "The laws are rigged to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot," Richardson says.

Back in Cambridge, Nader has ended his speech. But he isn't finished. He promises to return for questions. But first, some business.

As Nader exits, the soft-spoken Zawisky steps into the pulpit and seeks contributions. "Who'll give $2,300?" -- the maximum permissible under election law -- he asks.

The room is silent. No one steps up, even after Zawisky throws in an autographed, 40th-anniversary copy of "Unsafe at Any Speed," Nader's seminal work on auto safety.

"How about $1,000?" Silence. Finally, a hand shoots up, to applause. Zawisky scales back. He gets no takers at $500, one at $250. When the ask descends to $100, five people raise their hands. Four do so at $50. The night's take: almost $2,000.

Nader raised $8 million with the help of the Green Party in 2000. As an independent, he raised $4 million in 2004. This time, he says his goal is $10 million.

He's got a long way to go. With less than five months until Election Day, his campaign has raised $150,000.

No matter. Ralph Nader isn't going away anytime soon.

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