MANCHESTER, N.H. -- For many years, those turned off by politics have dreamed of voting for a presidential candidate who was not a typical politician. Someone like Ralph Nader, for instance. Now, they can. Sort of.
Mr. Nader, who calls himself a "citizen activist" and has long resisted pleas that he enter politics, is a write-in candidate in next month's New Hampshire presidential primary.
He's on the primary ballot as a Democratic presidential candidate in Massachusetts, which holds its primary March 10.
The 56-year-old registered Democrat has already made four trips to New Hampshire, where he has enjoyed striking success. He has drawn bigger crowds than the other candidates, and the Nader campaign has many of the elements of a traditional presidential candidacy -- polls, buttons, bumper stickers, planned radio commercials and at least a dozen paid campaign workers.
But the Nader "campaign" isn't quite what it seems, leading some to question whether America's most famous consumer advocate is being entirely honest with the public.
Mr. Nader is using the trappings of a presidential candidacy to publicize his latest crusade: a sweeping reform of the political system.
Although he insists he's not a true candidate, he has effectively embraced a "Draft Nader" campaign organized by some former Nader Raiders. The group is running newspaper ads deploring the sick state of American politics and praising Mr. Nader as "someone you can be proud to vote for."
Some 500 people were lured to a rally, sponsored by the draft committee, at the Manchester Institute of Arts and Sciences the other night.
Mr. Nader himself promoted the event repeatedly during an hourlong appearance on a local radio call-in show.
He prefaced his speech with a disclaimer: "Hello. I'm None of the Above, and I'm not running for president," he told would-be supporters.
The diverse crowd included a substantial number of Republicans and independents who voted for President Bush last time but have joined those who are clearly fed up with conventional politicians at a time of sharp economic distress.
"A message has to get back to Washington that we need creative solutions to some very serious problems facing our state and our country," said Steve Spain, a Manchester stockbroker.
Mr. Nader shuns the label "politician" and says he has no desire to be president. But if his campaign catches fire, he says, he might run in California, the nation's most populous state.
In an interview, he acknowledged that he is taking advantage of the presidential campaign to get publicity for his ideas about reforming the political system.
"I never foresaw that the media would not take seriously civic advocacy that is not involved in the political process," he said.
One of his reform ideas is for states to give voters the option of casting their ballot for None of the Above, as a way of registering discontent with the candidates who are running. Only Nevada has such a system, and even it does not go far enough, in Mr. Nader's view; he would void any election in which None of the Above receives more than half the total vote.
After initially distancing himself from the write-in effort, Mr. Nader
has gradually moved closer to becoming a declared candidate, according to Ken Deutsch, the draft committee's state coordinator.
One reason may be the enthusiastic reception Mr. Nader receives for his anti-Washington message, his criticism of U.S. defense spending in Europe and Asia and his attacks on political corruption and congressional pay raises.
"When he speaks to things that play on people's cynicism, that's what gets them going," said Mr. Deutsch.
When the votes are counted in the Feb. 18 primary, he added, "we're going to surprise a lot of people up here."
Mr. Nader is dismissive of the "Six-Pack" of Democratic presidential candidates, two of whom, Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, voted for the pay raise. But his mission is not so much aimed at defeating them as it is to spark renewed citizen activism at a time when the gap between the government and the governed seems to be widening.
"There's too much money and too much power in too few hands, and those hands are in the wrong places," he says. "Our troubles now will be viewed nostalgically compared to the trouble that's headed our way . . . if we don't take control of our country."