Monday, Aug. 30, 2004 | 11:02 a.m.
Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader denounced the gaming industry and the planned Yucca Mountain repository in a brief stop in Las Vegas on Sunday, his first visit to Nevada since 2000.
On the eve of a lawsuit challenging his presence on the state's ballot, the liberal firebrand, who's becoming a worry for many Democrats, encouraged an enthusiastic audience of about 80 people not to settle for the "least worst" of the mainstream presidential candidates.
A hearing is scheduled for today on a lawsuit, filed by the state Democratic Party, alleging that signature-gatherers for the Nader campaign misled signers or misrepresented themselves in collecting the 5,002 signatures needed to get on the state ballot.
Nader denied the accusations and tried to position himself above the fray.
"I say to both parties, get off our backs and don't involve us in your insidious schemes," he said.
Nader said he has not accepted the help of Republican operatives who hope to use him to draw liberal votes away from Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, paving the way for a Republican victory. In Nevada, GOP activist Steve Wark has claimed he funded the Nader signature drive to the tune of $30,000.
Democrats who want to keep Nader off the ballot ought to be working harder to appeal to voters, Nader said.
"They're saying to these voters, 'You're too stupid to be allowed to vote for this ticket,' " he said.
In his speech, Nader weaved local issues into his themes of anti-corporatism and environmentalism.
Las Vegas, he said, is "a gambling paradise where people come as hopefuls and leave as losers," a place where "people are induced to bet on their future instead of build their future."
As gambling in various forms is increasingly legalized around the country, Nevada will lose its monopoly, Nader predicted. To avoid economic devastation and the city's descent into pornographic "adult" pastimes, he recommended diversifying into solar energy, taking advantage of the state's abundance of sunshine.
Nader, whose 40 years as a consumer activist bred a deep-seated hostility to corporations, painted the casinos as yet another of the big-business behemoths that victimize consumers and control Democrats and Republicans alike.
"Their only redeeming feature in the ethical sense is they might be able to stop Yucca Mountain -- stop this state from being turned into a depot for radioactive waste from nuclear plants that never should have been built in the first place," Nader said.
He pointed out that, as an opponent of nuclear power, he has opposed Yucca longer and more consistently than either Kerry or President George W. Bush. In 1976, Nader co-authored "The Menace of Atomic Energy" with John Abbotts.
But Nader faces lingering liberal anger over the 2000 election, when, running on the Green Party ticket, he took about 3 percent of the vote and was blamed by Democrats for the deadlock and defeat in Florida.
Earlier this month, filmmaker Michael Moore, a Nader supporter four years ago, got down on his knees on Bill Maher's cable television show and begged Nader to quit the race.
This time around, Nader is making it more explicit than he did in 2000 that, while he holds a dim view of both parties, he harbors the greatest distaste for the Republicans, and that his ultimate goal is to get the attention of the Democrats.
Painting the backdrop for his candidacy, Nader pointed to historical third parties whose popularity altered the political landscape: parties that opposed slavery, favored women's suffrage or spoke for the labor movement. None of those parties won a national election, he noted, but they succeeded in fomenting change.
"The only vote that's wasted is when you vote for someone you don't believe in," Nader said. "The only vote that's wasted is when you vote for an agenda you don't believe in -- when you're so freaked out by the worst that you vote for the least worst."
Nader predicted defeat for Bush in November. "He's self-destructing," he said. "Kerry isn't laying a glove on him, but Iraq is his swing state."
Those who attended the speech said they liked Nader's message, but they were divided on whether or not he would get their vote.
Clarke Finneran, 44, stood outside the speech holding a cardboard sign with the slogan, "Nader...unsafe at any speed," a reference to the candidate's famous 1965 book about the auto industry. He handed out slips of paper reading, "Ralph Nader needs your adulation, John Kerry needs your vote!!!"
Finneran said liberals in Nevada have to be practical and team up to defeat Bush in a state most polls show to be a virtual dead heat between the two major candidates.
"We don't have the luxury of voting for Ralph Nader," he said. "It's going to be either John Kerry or George Bush, so as Ralph Nader would suggest we can pick the lesser of two evils."
Finneran also accused Nader of selling Kerry short. "He (Nader) acts like he's the only one with a health care plan," he said.
Lea Daleo, 63, agreed wholeheartedly.
"I have a lot of respect for Ralph Nader, a lot of respect for him," she said. "I loved him. I thought he was great. And I will be voting for John Kerry."
But some said they would stand by their man.
"Everybody says a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush," said Erica McNeely, 20. "But if everyone's too scared to vote for Nader, we'll lose the only voice that's questioning the system in place and isn't just siding with corporations."