CHICAGO -- Away from the bright lights and fanfare of the just-completed presidential debates, four third-party White House hopefuls debated Tuesday night, coming from starkly different political perspectives, but uniting in agreement that neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama can solve the nation’s biggest problems.
A day after Obama and Romney debated for the final time, the long-shots took a turn. Here in a hotel ballroom just a block from Grant Park -- where Obama delivered his victory speech in 2008 – they addressed many of the same issues the major party candidates have wrangled over -- the economy, foreign policy, education -- but also addressed matters, such as drugs, that have not been a focal points in the race between Obama and Romney.
Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, earned the loudest applause during the debate’s opening moments. He railed against the domestic and foreign policy proposals both major party candidates have put forth, and called for the legalization of marijuana.
“In no category is marijuana more dangerous than alcohol,” said Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico who also wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and do away with income and corporate taxes in favor of an expenditure tax.
Johnson also railed against the length of the war in Afghanistan. “I thought initially that was totally warranted,” he said, before adding that we should “have gotten out of Afghanistan 11 years ago.”
The former governor saved perhaps his most memorable line of the night for the end of the debate, when he declared, “Wasting your vote is voting for somebody that you don’t believe in. That’s wasting your vote. I’m asking everybody here, I’m asking everybody watching this nationwide to waste your vote on me.”
Constitution Party nominee Virgil Goode, a former Virginia congressman and hard-line anti-immigration candidate, proposed a moratorium on green card admissions into the United States until unemployment falls below five percent nationally. He earned only a smattering of cheers when he pitched his plan.
Green Party nominee Jill Stein and Justice Party nominee Rocky Anderson rounded out the lineup on stage. Stein, who ran for governor of Massachusetts against Romney in 2002, called for free public higher education. “Let’s bail out the students,” she declared.
The candidates largely kept things cordial with each other during the debate, but there were disagreements from time to time. Goode was at odds with Johnson’s call to legalize marijuana. Stein and Anderson disagreed with Johnson and Goode on education spending.
The debate was moderated by former CNN host Larry King and presented by the nonpartisan Free and Equal Elections Foundation. Individuals submitted the questions via social media. The issues ranged from drugs, to the economy, foreign policy, and civil rights.
Absent here were the pre-game formalities that colored the much higher-profile debates between the president and his Republican challenger. There were no cable network countdown shows and no well-known pols reporting for surrogate duty. While the debate was streamed live online,
TV networks didn’t air it C-SPAN aired it, but the major broadcast networks did not.
Time and again, the candidates expressed their dissatisfaction with both Romney and Obama. Goode blasted both Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan and Obama’s. Stein said neither candidate offered an acceptable way forward on the issues that matter.
“Things are not working and there is not a single exit strategy on the table being offered by Mitt Romney or Barack Obama,” Stein said in an interview before the debate.
At best, the four candidates who appeared together Tuesday are each expected to compete for single-digit percentage shares of the vote in the states where they will appear on the ballot. Not one has made a dent on the national radar akin to the success Texas billionaire Ross Perot found in 1992, when he carried nearly 20 percent of the popular vote. Goode, Johnson, and Stein each claimed one percent support in an early September Gallup poll of national adults.
But even if they only attract nominal enthusiasm, these longest of long-shots could become entangled in the race between Romney and Obama. Johnson will appear on the ballot in 48 states, including some key battlegrounds with independent streaks, where his blend of fiscal conservatism and distinctly libertarian social views could make him a compelling alternative for conservative voters not wedded to voting for Romney.
In Colorado, New Hampshire, and Nevada, in particular, Johnson could be a thorn in Romney’s side if the election is close. Johnson received just two percent support in a recent Suffolk University/News 7 survey of those likeliest to vote in New Hampshire. But the poll also showed Johnson hurt Romney more than Obama.
“Politics is full of ironies. Gary Johnson voters are predisposed to voting against the incumbent president, but Johnson’s presence on the New Hampshire presidential ballot is actually helping Obama,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
If Virginia is exceptionally close, Goode, despite attracting just two percent support in a mid-September Washington Post poll of Virginia voters, could be an also-ran to remember, causing some discomfort for Romney supporters. The state Republican Party tried to keep Goode out of the mix altogether earlier this year, alleging issues with the signatures he submitted to the state Board of Elections to get on the ballot.
Goode survived the scrutiny. Now, the former Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent congressman -- who could benefit from residual name identification in the southern part of the state -- threatens to steal support from Romney at the margins, potentially costing the Republican big in a tight race.
When asked before the debate about the possibility that he might play the role of spoiler, Goode said he was focused on policy matters. "I am focusing on issues. I want to balance the budget now. Romney and Obama do not," he said.
The biggest question at the end of Tuesday night's debate may have been who won. A spokesperson with the Free and Equal Elections Foundation said that viewers will have a chance to vote for their favorite candidate during the next 24 hours, and the top two vote-getters will debate once more this election season in Washington next Tuesday.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post omitted the fact that C-SPAN carried the debate.