EDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, Oct. 28 — At every mention of the word "spoiler," the crowd groaned.
The students and others who packed a hall at the University of Iowa on Friday night to hear Ralph Nader, the Green Party's presidential candidate, justify his campaign simply did not want to hear any more about the possibility that they would throw the election to Gov. George W. Bush. They were so upset at being confronted with the evil of two lesser candidates, they said, that they refused to vote again for the lesser of two evils.
"This year the choice is between George W. Bush and a Democrat who is to the right of Bill Clinton," complained Ed Fallon, a Democratic state representative who introduced Mr. Nader. "I don't begrudge my friends and constituents who plan to vote for Al Gore. I understand their fear of George W. Bush. But voting against somebody isn't enough anymore. If I had three hands maybe I could hold my nose, my gut and my mouth and vote for Al Gore. But in good conscience, I can't, I won't, and you shouldn't either."
Democrats were certainly nervous about the possibility: the party dispatched the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the comedian Al Franken to address students at the university, which is in Iowa City, that same afternoon.
Mr. Nader himself was unsparing in his criticism of the Democrats, attacking them more often and more harshly than he did the Republicans. In an interview after the speech, he explained that he did not feel the need to go after Mr. Bush because the problems of a Bush presidency were more readily apparent.
"Bush is a corporation running for president disguised as a person," he said, "Whereas Gore touts his environmental record, says he can match it against anyone, even me. And that's an invitation."
Others said that to wean national politics from its dependence on big business, and to give a voice to people against the death penalty, the war on drugs, genetically altered crops, economic sanctions in Iraq and a host of other causes that the people here felt deeply about, radical change was necessary.
Simply put, they said, things may have to get worse before they get better. One labor leader used the analogy of a strike: the workers would be willing to endure "short-term pain" to win long-term reforms and benefits.
Mr. Nader used another analogy, pointing out President Reagan's appointment of James Watt as the Interior Secretary, which so infuriated environmentally minded Americans that the rolls of watchdog groups doubled. "He was a provocateur," Mr. Nader said, explaining that a more palatable appointment might have been an "anesthetizer" that would have left those people complacent. "Sometimes people need a provocateur," he said.
Late in the evening, a woman asked Mr. Nader whether by voting for him she would be electing Mr. Bush and endangering the right to abortions. Mr. Nader told her that it would not necessarily happen, noting that conservative presidents have appointed liberal judges to the Supreme Court and vice versa.
The evening showed why the Nader campaign has been a political phenomenon. Not only did he fill a hall with nearly a thousand students, but many who came donated $3.50 for the privilege.
Unlike the major candidates, who speak about issues like Social Security and Medicare that are aimed at elderly voters, and issues like education that are aimed at parents, Mr. Nader tailored his message to the young.
"If you don't `turn on' to politics," he warned, "politics will turn on you."