WASHINGTON -- Although he will be on the ballot in November in about half the states, it wouldn't be quite right to say that Ralph Nader is running for president. That would suggest activity.
From a bare office, with a bare bookshelf and bare walls, that he has just moved into, the defiantly black-and-white nominee of the Green Party is waging a sort of passive-aggressive presidential campaign.
If you build it -- and if you do all the work and raise all the money and leave me alone, he told the liberal, ecologically minded Greens last year I still might not come.
Indeed, the nation's most celebrated consumer activist says he has no expectations -- or even desire -- to be president. "I have the best position of all -- full-time citizen," Nader said in an interview, his lanky 6-foot-4-inch frame slouched in a chair.
But, vowing to spend less than $5,000 (and with paltry poll numbers to prove it), he has entered into what most see as a marriage of convenience with the California-based Greens.
He has lent his name and stature to that fledgling party in exchange for a megaphone for his anti-corporate message and a stab at breaking up what he calls the "two-party duopoly" and building an alternative party.
"Corporate interests control government now, and they control more and more of everything we call America," says the 62-year-old Nader, who gained prominence 30 years ago when he took on the auto industry with his landmark book, "Unsafe at Any Speed."
He said he sees little difference between today's Democrats, embodied by the man he calls "George Ronald Clinton," and the Republicans -- all of whom, he says, are ignoring such issues as corporate tax breaks and campaign finance reform and leaving liberals and progressives like himself out in the cold.
"The Green Party will answer that 'you got nowhere to go' problem, and either the corporate Democrats are going to have to be responsive or they're going to lose more and more votes," Nader says.
Earlier this year, Democrats feared that a Nader candidacy could siphon enough votes from President Clinton to tip the balance to the Republican candidate in the most vote-rich state, California. No longer. Clinton has built a commanding lead in the state, and Nader has dropped to a meager 3 percent in polls there -- and 2 percent nationally.
Nader's laissez-faire approach -- he will not raise money or accept contributions, will not run TV ads or crisscross the country, will not even file as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission -- has provoked criticism and puzzlement, even from supporters.
"Ralph is not exactly Mr. A for effort," says Kevin Phillips, a Republican analyst who has applauded Nader's causes. "He's at risk of becoming a laughingstock. I'm bewildered by his performance. It's just impossible to see a logic here."
Others have accused the open-government champion of hypocrisy for refusing to report his campaign finances or personal income to the FEC. Candidates who spend less than $5,000 are not required to make such filings. Nader plans to spend $4,999, he says with a chuckle.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal recently lambasted "the great Oracle of Openness" for trying to keep his finances secret and expressed doubt that he could hold his expenses under $5,000. And Voter Revolt, a California group that has fought Nader on several ballot issues in the past, filed a complaint with the FEC, charging that he has already spent more than $5,000.
Nader, a gray-haired ascetic figure who has always fiercely guarded his private life, dismisses all the criticism. An opponent of the influence of money in politics and a supporter of publicly sponsored campaigns, he asserts that he is trying to provide a model of a campaign without money.
So far, he has made just one campaign trip -- to California -- and is relying almost exclusively on television, radio and newspaper interviews to get his word out.
"I've been around the country for 30 years, so a lot of people know where I stand," he says. "I'd rather campaign in a more deliberate manner, through free media and writing articles and telling Green Party supporters to rely on themselves, be more active in the local communities. That's the way you build something in the long run."
He insists that he has spent less than $1,300 so far and says he plans to campaign on the cheap -- traveling by "motor vehicle," getting low airfares and staying at the homes of friends.
And he says he has declined to file disclosure forms with the FEC not out of secrecy, but because of his long-standing commitment to privacy rights regarding personal income -- even for political candidates. While he believes the public has a right to know who's funding a campaign, he says, "It's not relevant to a no-money campaign."
David Vladeck, a longtime Nader friend and associate, says the public-interest advocate is accepting no campaign contributions because he "doesn't believe he's really running for president in the traditional sense."