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Nader parries with persistent questioners

Ralph Nader dropped into town Wednesday to give a speech about the importance of his third-party bid to become president. He got some speeches too.

In a question-and-answer session at Centro Asturiano in Ybor City, Josh Chou told Nader that he had campaigned for him in the last election. Not again, he said before being shouted down by a crowd of about 200. He never got to ask his question. "I love Ralph and love what he's done," said the 21-year-old political science major at the University of Florida said afterward. "But he's an egocentric maniac." The questioner before Chou was ejected from the building after getting into a shouting match with Nader, calling his campaign a "quixotic endeavor." He wanted to know what Nader was going to tell the parents of the many young people in the audience when they're "conscripted" into military service after President George Bush wins a second term.

He accused Nader of ducking his question, with Nader saying he would answer the question his own way. Which was essentially this: He didn't cost Al Gore the election four years ago, the Florida Supreme Court did. Besides, he opposes the war and has encouraged Democrat John Kerry to take the same stand if he wants to win election.

"The Democrats didn't listen to our road map to victory," Nader said.

Other questioners were generally less confrontational, but even those who expressed support for Nader said they will have a hard time voting for him this time and risking a return of Bush.

Likening his campaign to the abolition, suffrage and labor movements of prior decades, Ralph Nader said his independent bid for president is setting the table for future candidates.

"We're all prisoners of this 200-year-old, two-party dominated electoral college, winner-take-all system," Nader told reporters before addressing a crowd of about 200 people at Centro Asturiano in Ybor City. "It's time to break out of jail."

This month he won a Florida Supreme Court fight to stay on the state's ballot as the nominee of the Reform Party. In the 2000 presidential race Nader ran as the Green Party nominee, and received 97,488 votes in Florida, where Gore lost to Bush by 537 votes.

Carol Noonan, a 26-year-old massage therapist and student at the University of South Florida, said she voted for Nader four years ago. Now her country is in a war she desperately opposes.

She knows, absolutely, she does not want Bush back. She believes, too, that people should vote for the person they believe in. So as she looked at a piece of campaign literature from Nader urging people to vote their conscience, not their fears, it tugs at her.

"I guess it's my conscience bothering me," Noonan said, explaining her struggle contemplating her choices Nov. 2. "I'd like to stick to my principles but, you know, people are dying."

Similar sentiments were expressed by others. Doug Currier, 23, a geography student at USF, said Nader addresses many of the issues that affect voters.

"I think Nader has the future of the country in mind," Currier said. Who's he voting for? Not Nader.

Bob Carroll, 62, a Palm Harbor attorney, said he drove across Tampa Bay mainly to hear someone he considers a great American hero who has championed consumer rights. That said, he doubts he'll be able to vote for him. Not in Florida.

"Maybe if I lived in another state," Carroll said.

He's no spoiler, he said. It's the Democrats' fault for not adopting some of his positions. Those are: Rein in corporate America, which he said has achieved unseemly control over the political system. Develop renewable forms of energy, which he said are readily available. Preserve the environment, establish a living wage, shrink a "bloated, redundant" military budget and get troops out of Iraq. "I'm not standing on the sidelines," Nader said. "I'm taking apart George W. Bush in ways the Democrats should be taking (him) apart themselves, but they're too cautious, too unimaginative and too indentured to their corporate contributors to make that broader front against the Bush regime."

So what's the point, if he ends up with 3 percent, as polls suggest? "Any political effort is worthwhile, when the alternative is surrender."