Ralph Goes South

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida -- If not for the packed rallies pulling more than two thousand in St. Petersburg and over four thousand in Gainesville, one might have guessed Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader was on vacation. Indeed, the balmy air, majestic palm trees and brilliant Gulf Coast sunset were a far cry from the industrial Midwest and cement-blanketed Northeast where he has campaigned for most of the past month.

"I love it here," he said emphatically. "The temperature is beautiful, I don't want to leave."

The crowds were a bit different as well. At the Mahaffrey Theater in St. Petersburg, there were enough senior citizens to constitute a meeting of the AARP, and teenagers too young to vote were handing out flyers for the local anarchist bookstore.

A group of truck drivers gathered around a sign reading, "Another Teamster for Ralph Nader -- Labor's Real Choice," but wouldn't share their names or union locals, fearful of losing their jobs for publicly disputing the official Teamster endorsement of vice president Al Gore.

A troupe called the Siesta Key Drum Circle burned sage, drummed and chanted to "welcome the spirit" of Green vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke. They cheered when a speaker noted that "there are lots of people here who aren't hippies, but there are some who are, and we love them!"

Despite the beautiful weather and colorful crowd, the particular problems of Florida were the focus of the rallies. Mike Elder of the Miami Greens rattled off some of the issues that concern Florida voters: "The Everglades being sold off for development, the water problems, the whole issue with healthcare and lack of insurance, sustainable growth, urban sprawl."

In St. Petersburg, Nader addressed these issues, paying particular consideration to healthcare and the alleged corruption of pharmaceutical companies, apparently appealing to the state's legendarily powerful senior voters. He also attacked what he said is the decrepit state of Florida's public school system.

Turning to his rivals, Nader described Wednesday's presidential debate as a "massive exercise in tedium." He argued that all of the "agreeing" so lauded by the media between Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Democrat Gore was in fact evidence of how dangerously similar the two parties have become, and he joked that "poor (debate moderator) Jim Lehrer actually had to ask them to explain how they're different."

Employing the rhetorical venom he usually reserves for Gore, Nader laid into Bush on his brother Gov. Jeb Bush's home turf: "I get worried when he says he's a 'compassionate conservative,'" said Nader. "If you're not a compassionate conservative, what kind of conservative does that make you? Do you ever hear people call themselves 'compassionate liberals?'"

Nader's visit to the state comes as Florida has taken center stage nationally, considered perhaps the most crucial swing state in this election. The two major party candidates are currently in a statistical dead heat in Florida, the New York Times reported last week, and political analysts don't believe Bush can win the presidency without it. Gore, who recently identified Florida as "the key to the election," and Bush have each made more than ten campaign swings through the state in this election.

Despite the tight race, most Nader supporters in Florida did not seem dissuaded by arguments that voting for their candidate could help put a Republican in the White House. Considering the possibility of Gore losing in part due to a significant defection of Florida's Democrats to the Green Party, Mark Neumann, a registered Democrat and professor of communications at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, was nevertheless confident in his choice.

"Personally, I would not feel responsible for [a Bush victory]," said Neumann. "I'm not responsible for the state of Florida, I'm responsible for my role as a voter, and I'm voting for who I think is the right choice. It doesn't matter where I live, I would vote Nader."

Bill Rodgers, a 77-year old founder of the Sarasota Green Party -- which he said has mushroomed from six members last April to a current mailing list of over 400 -- has read about the two major party candidates traversing his state in a frenetic quest for votes but is unimpressed.

"The difference between a Bush presidency and a Gore presidency will be so minor over the term, and if Bush gets in, heaven forbid, it will still take him time to change things," Rodgers said. "There's another aspect of this that a lot of people aren't thinking about, and that's Congress. If Democrats gain seats in the Congress, that'll make Bush's changes more difficult."

Not everyone, however, felt so assured. Robin Cook, a speech-language pathologist from St. Petersburg said she came to the rally an undecided voter and was leaving as an undecided voter. "[Nader] speaks to who I am, and I understand what he's saying and I appreciate it," said Cook, but she went on to qualify her fondness with a deep-seated concern about the types of conservative justices a President Bush would appoint to the Supreme Court, and said she may vote for Gore to help avoid such a scenario.

Cook is also keenly aware of Florida's central role in the election drama, judging from the nearly ubiquitous presence of presidential ticket candidates and their advertising, and the fact that she has already been polled three times -- although the pollsters never offered Nader as a choice.

Jesse Glickstein, a nineteen-year old student at the New College and an activist on Middle East issues, said he came to the rally feeling solid in his plan to vote for Gore, but announced over a microphone during the question-and-answer period that he had changed his mind during the course of the evening and would be voting for Nader.

"The people who are voting for Nader would probably have voted for Gore [otherwise], there's no question about that, and if Bush is elected, I definitely wouldn't be happy," said Glickstein. "But I just see that as adding fuel to this fight, and getting other people to join the Green Party."

For elderly Irving Kellman, who spoke wistfully about his youth working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, voting for Nader fits with his lifelong support of the labor movement. "I've been disenchanted for 80 years," he said. "Others have been disenchanted for anything from five years to 40 years. This is why we've come here."

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