By CHP Staff Report

Ralph Nader, one of the most lauded and criticized public figures of the past half-century, spoke in front of a cheering audience at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium last Monday.

Nader rose to fame in the 1960s when he demanded accountability from General Motors for car safety. During the last two presidential elections, he was criticized for receiving would-be Democratic votes in swing states.

Nader and his running mate Matt Gonzalez are running for president with the Peace and Freedom Party.

Gonzalez rose to political prominence after narrowly losing the 2003 San Francisco mayoral race to Gavin Newsom.

Third-party candidates’ exclusion from presidential debates was a major topic in the night’s speeches.

“I was asked why I thought I was qualified to debate Sarah Palin,” Gonzalez said to raucous laughter and applause. “I almost said ‘are you kidding?’”

The crowd responded with energy to Gonzalez and Nader’s speeches, which highly criticized Senators Obama and McCain. Nader made a point of criticizing Obama for “moving to the right” to appeal to conservative voters.

Gonzalez urged citizens against “conceding their vote” too early to a specific political party, because it allowed candidates to shift their positions in later months of the campaign without fear of losing support from their base.

Nader also referred to McCain as the “candidate for perpetual war,” and highly criticized the proposed Congressional bailout of Wall Street.

Though Nader was well received by the large audience, a few protesters picketed outside holding signs including “Every vote for Nader is a vote for McCain.”

Jack Ferguson, a self-proclaimed “Nader Raider,” could not disagree more with the accusation that Nader’s candidacy hurts a Democrats’ chances of winning the general election.

“That’s contemptible; anybody’s got the right to run. If the Democrats can’t hold their election together, that’s their problem,” said Ferguson, a 15-year supporter of Nader. “I always write him in even if he is not on the ballot.”

Leflore Cunningham Walsh, 22, a member on the National Board of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, sees the two party system as inherently undemocratic.

“I really believe in third-party platforms,” Walsh said after Nader’s speech. “I believe that the two-party system is really corrupt and is controlled by corporate America, as this evening talked about, and I really feel that Ralph Nader has set a strong precedent for protecting the American people and the American country as a whole, including our environmental standards.”

Walsh continued, “I feel it is really important to support all third-party candidates because I really feel like they represent people, as opposed to the two-party system, which really ends up herding people into two camps that are basically the same.”

Near the end of the speech, before an extended question-and-answer period and an impassioned plea for campaign donations, Nader strongly urged young people to get involved in political action.

“When your grandkids ask ‘where were you,’” Nader said, “you don’t want to tell them you were updating your profile on Facebook.”

Cyrus Gutnick, Maricela Lechuga and Daniel Zarchy contributed to this report.