Potts is fizzling.

Once heralded as having the potential to be a major factor in the Virginia race for governor, state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester) is rapidly headed toward asterisk status in the history books.

Unless something changes, and quickly, the independent candidacy Potts launched in February appears likely to end Nov. 8 with just a handful of votes.

The election, it seems, is coming down to the wire largely as a contest between the two major party candidates, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).

Potts is caught in a chicken-or-egg conundrum: He needs to reach 15 percent in the polls to get into a debate with the two major party candidates. But he needs the exposure of televised debates to reach 15 percent in the polls.

The only solution, for Potts or any other third-party candidate, is money for TV ads across Virginia. But Potts doesn't have anywhere near enough.

Thanks to two mega-gifts from his longtime friend and sugar daddy, Lloyd Ross, Potts has inched up to about $1 million in total fundraising. He has already spent more than half and was left with only about $460,000 at the end of August.

To put that into perspective: One week of good, solid advertising on television in the Northern Virginia market costs $500,000.

The senator's advisers are doing everything they can to leverage his limited resources and his quirky personality to their best use.

Potts went on the air this week with a clever TV ad that aims to rapidly build name recognition. In the spot, people are shown banging on pots with wooden spoons as they chant, "We want Potts!" The ad ends with Potts saying, "This is Virginia. Let's make 'em hear us."

Hear them we might. (Although one Potts adversary predicted that the banging might just make people want to hit the mute button.)

It's not clear whether the ad will shoot Potts up in the polls. So far, only one election survey has shown Potts above about 5 percent, and many have shown him hovering around 3 or 4. If he wants to be in the last major debate, on Oct. 9, he needs to reach 15 percent in two polls by early October. That doesn't leave much time.

The unscripted exchanges offer the best hope to poke through the sanitized, packaged campaigns of Potts's opponents, who have vast resources. Kaine and Kilgore have each raised nearly $15 million, with almost two months left in the campaign.

At the Sept. 13 debate in Fairfax County, for example, Potts was able to grab some of the spotlight by agreeing to a second, mini-debate with Kaine immediately after the main event at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner.

But most of the coverage still focused on the exchanges between Kaine and Kilgore -- and Kilgore's flubs in answering questions from the moderator, NBC's "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert.

Potts and Kaine are holding another debate, without Kilgore, on Sept. 30. Unless he manages to squeak into the Richmond debate -- moderated by University of Virginia pundit Larry J. Sabato and televised statewide -- Potts will struggle to make his message heard.

Potts had hoped the central piece of that message -- transportation spending -- would make a huge splash, giving him the boost he needed at just the right moment. He proposed that the state raise nearly $2 billion in taxes to finance road and bridge construction.

The idea is enormously popular among editorial boards and some business executives, who see the region's traffic as a crisis. But it might not be so popular among rank-and-file voters who are concerned about their pocketbooks.

Can Potts still surge? Sure.

A last-minute contribution could give him the ability to run more ads. A particularly biting commercial could generate a buzz that lives on far longer than the ad itself. Kaine or Kilgore could stumble badly, giving Potts a chance to emerge as an alternative.

And in a very close race -- and this one could be -- even a diminished Potts could cost one of the candidates the victory.

But don't hold your breath. It looks like the Potts factor might be less dramatic than he and others once expected.