— -- Four decades after he started shaking up corporate America as a nationally known consumer advocate, Ralph Nader is again trying to make his mark on presidential politics.
After spending less than $5,000 on a presidential run and receiving just 1 percent of the vote in 1996, Nader made a more aggressive run in 2000 as the Green Party candidate, and received nearly 3 percent of the vote, just enough to get him called a spoiler by Democrats bitter over the outcome of the election.
This time around, he's at least ironically embracing the roll of spoiler -- his campaign is selling T-shirts with the word across the chest -- but he says he has a more serious role to play, and he's not concerned about the labels being put on him.
"We're trying to get as many votes as possible, which means we're going into states that are characterized as safe states, battleground states and states that fall in between," Nader said recently at a news conference in Washington.
In an interview on ABC News' Good Morning America, Nader said he is campaigning to create a change, both on issues he believes neither President Bush nor Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry are addressing, and in the American political system.
"I think our campaign is for political reform, economic reform, getting out of Iraq, a living wage for families," he said.
But he is facing an uphill battle. His name will be on the ballot in only 33 states and Washington, D.C. He is fighting court cases in eight states to get his name on the ballot, will have to rely on write-in votes in eight other states. Residents of Oklahoma will not be able to cast ballots for him even if they want to.
"Our long-range goal is to break up the two parties," Nader said, calling the two-party system "a menace and subversion of our democratic processes and it's basically sold our elections and our government to commercial interests."
Nader burst onto the public scene in 1965 with a book condemning the auto industry for its failure to enact safety measures. "Unsafe at Any Speed" was the culmination of years of research begun at Harvard Law School, continued at a small law practice in Connecticut, and finished up after Nader moved to Washington to work with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant to the labor secretary.
The book landed on the best seller list and made the young lawyer an overnight celebrity. Congress held hearings on auto safety, and -- thanks to Nader's lobbying, research and testimony -- made seat belts and other car safety measures mandatory.
But the success had a dark side. General Motors, Nader's primary target in the book, hired private investigators to look at his personal politics, background and sex life. The probes came up empty-handed. After GM's efforts were revealed, the company's president publicly apologized to Nader and paid him $425,000 to drop an invasion-of-privacy suit.
In the years that followed, Nader's work inspired a following of young activists -- dubbed "Nader's Raiders" -- who joined him in Washington to help with his crusades. Working for Nader-founded watchdog groups like the Center for Responsive Law, Public Interest Research Group and Public Citizen, they took on government agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration for being too lenient on corporations.
Nader reached the pinnacle of his influence during the 1970s. He was widely credited with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the Freedom of Information Act in 1974, and a 1971 Harris Poll named him the sixth-most popular American. When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, several of Nader's top proteges were chosen for administration positions.
But as the decadent '80s began, Nader's tireless campaigns against big business began to fall out of favor with the public. By 1985, he headed just two of the many consumer agencies he had founded, and his influence was fading.
In 1986, his brother Shafeek died of prostate cancer, and Nader suffered from depression. But he rebounded by pressing the car industry to mass-produce air bags and, in so doing, introduced himself to a new generation of activists.