WASHINGTON _ They come not to win the election, but to change the face of American politics.
Third-party candidates have long been a part of the country's political system. From Theodore Roosevelt to Ross Perot, they rarely have a chance at winning the presidency, but the support they garner from the effort often changes the nation's political landscape.
“There are two ways of winning,” said John Hagelin, the Natural Law Party's presidential candidate, “winning offices and winning in the way third parties almost always win, which is in the marketplace of ideas.”
This year, at least three third-party candidates remain in the presidential race less than a week before election day, despite polls that show their support in the single digits. Ralph Nader, the Green Party's presidential nominee, Hagelin and Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party said they have stayed around in the hopes that they can force the major party candidates to change their tune on several key issues.
“The two major parties have become xerox copies of each other on the issues I care about,” Buchanan said, citing big government and international issues, such as foreign intervention and immigration, as his biggest concerns.
Traditionally, third-party candidates do not have a lot of success in pushing their pet issues into the mainstream. But there have been a few examples of third-party candidates whose popularity brought the issues they championed to the forefront. Abraham Lincoln, whose Republican party became a major party after he won the presidency in 1860, helped facilitate the abolition of slavery, Hagelin said. And, after serving nearly two terms as a Republican president, Roosevelt helped bring about women's suffrage with an unsuccessful third-party bid in 1912.
Bob Roth, who serves as Hagelin's campaign manager, cited Perot's unsuccessful campaign in 1992 as the most recent example of a third-party candidate re-shaping the country's political mindset.
“Perot brought out the issues of a balanced budget and campaign finance reform,” Roth said, “which no one was even talking about at the time.”
The closeness of the 2000 election may allow one or all of this year's third-party candidates to join that list, Hagelin said.
“Because the races are so close (this year),” Hagelin said, “Democrats and Republicans are talking about issues championed by third parties to try and get those votes.”
The most notable example of this is Nader, who many analysts say might steal enough votes from Democrat Al Gore to allow Republican George W. Bush to win the election. His appeal is not necessarily based on the issues, though, said Bob Roth, a spokesman for Hagelin.
“(Nader) stands for something Gore and Bush don't stand for – integrity,” Roth said. “He's drawing on people who recognize that, basically, Bush and Gore, when you strip away some of the surface veneer, they are so similar.”
Theresa Amato, who serves as Nader's campaign manager, said that, while they hope to bring issues like campaign finance reform and universal health care to the forefront, their ultimate goal is to bring the Green Party onto the same field with the Democrats and Republicans. This is necessary, she said, because neither major party is “engaging voters in the political process.”
Hagelin agreed that another party is needed, thought he favors his Natural Law Party over the Green Party. He cited the public's turning away from both of this year's major-party candidates as signifying a need for change.
“Nader's popularity is a result of the sobering realization following the last debate that George Bush or Al Gore may be our next president,” he said. “That's startling.”
Representatives of both parties were quick to dismiss the idea that this year's candidates have illustrated a need for another major political party.
“The more we draw the differences between the (two major) parties, the more individuals are coming to Gore,” said Jennifer Backus, a spokesperson for the Gore campaign.
Terry Holt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, also said Nader's popularity does not signify a change in the country's political climate.
“Ralph Nader is an icon. He's been part of the political landscape for 30 years, and he's always had his followers,” Holt said, adding that the Green Party nominee's sudden appeal to mainstream voters is because he “is ultimately more truthful and less prone to exaggeration than (Gore).”
There is evidence, though, that third-party candidates are gaining more standing on a national level. In the past, third-party candidates would not be seen on the major news shows, Roth said, and their debates could only be seen after midnight on C-Span. This year, Nader and Buchanan have made appearances on ABC's “Nightline” and NBC's “Meet the Press”, while CNN's “Larry King Live” has served as a prime-time venue for third-party debates.
All of this, Roth said, proves that voters are interested in hearing what third parties have to say.
“Right under the surface is a peaceful revolution that is going to surprise a lot of people,” he said. “We are creating the next generation of American politics.”