Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, right, and her running mate Cheri Honkala. (Michael Temchine for The Washington Post.)

The Green Party’s Jill Stein knows one of her presidential rivals pretty well, having run against him for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. Apparently, it was a good experience, because when I ask what that race taught her about Mitt Romney, she bursts out laughing.

“He will basically respond to his electorate,” she says wryly. Some people like that in a candidate, and Stein almost sounds like one of them, “As governor, it’s hard to find differences between him and Deval Patrick,” she says, referring to the Democrat in office now. “Having lived under Mitt Romney for four years, I’m not quaking in my boots any more than I am” at the prospect of Barack Obama’s reelection.

Ralph Nader (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

All of this reminds me uncomfortably of another October conversation I had with a Green Party hopeful, on Halloween of 2000, while flying back to Washington from an Ohio campaign event with Ralph Nader. In my personal pantheon of frustrating interviews, that one was right up there with another during that same campaign, in which George W. Bush repeated one of a handful of answers, word for word, no matter what I asked him. Nader’s main point was that there was no real difference between Bush and Al Gore. If Bush were to be elected, he told me, ”[a] bumbling Texas governor would galvanize the environmental community as never before.”

Stein calls Nader a man ahead of his time. I think of him more as a man who undid his own life’s work, but she counters that “we’re in a different moment” now, and that so many people have had it with “the politics of fear” that of the 225 million Americans registered to vote even in the historic election of ’08, just some 131 million actually bothered to cast a ballot.

Stein and her running mate, Pennsylvania anti-poverty advocate Cheri Honkala, are polling at only around 2 percent. They will, however, be on about 85 percent of all ballots next month and have qualified for federal matching funds. And their real opportunity, Stein says, is with Americans under 30, who haven’t yet accepted the notion that “change” looks a lot like more of the same.

“I expected to be the usual persona non grata” during this campaign, she says, “and instead have gotten the red carpet.” When I ask where that’s happened, she mentions Western Illinois University, where she kicked off her campaign a year ago. She literally had to get herself arrested trying to enter last week’s presidential debate at Hofstra University to get noticed there, and will get to debate only other third-party candidates at an Internet debate moderated by Larry King in Chicago on Tuesday.

President Obama and Mitt Romney with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York at last week’s annual Al Smith dinner. (AP)

Nothing is easier than dismissing candidates who run against impossible odds; my least favorite thing about most political coverage is that the only real question we ever ask underdogs is why oh why they think they can win, as if we fear nothing quite so much as appearing to take a loser even semi-seriously. But Stein’s platform is, after all, considered ridiculous in a world in which the $2 billion that’s being spent on this presidential race is complained about but accepted.

A Harvard-educated doctor from Lexington, Mass., 62-year-old Stein practiced internal medicine for 25 years, then got into what she sees as practicing “political medicine” as a way to treat the epidemics of asthma, diabetes, learning disabilities and cancer at a more preventive, policy level. She has never held office outside her town, yet thinks big in a country where there’s considerable pushback against Michelle Obama encouraging us to eat veggies.

Her platform includes Medicare for all and a “Green New Deal” that she says would cost less than the first stimulus package and put millions of Americans to work weatherizing homes and businesses, installing solar panels, building bike paths, upgrading public transit systems and constructing safe sidewalks. The only benefits, of course, would be lowering unemployment as well as our dependence on fossil fuels and making us healthier. Cuh-razy, right?

Though she insists she pulls evenly with Rs and Ds, I have a hard time imagining that just as many Republicans as Democrats want to repeal the Patriot Act or break up big banks — though if Obama loses the popular vote but wins in the electoral college, Republicans may rally around her plan to abolish it.

Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein

President Stein would also end subsidies to agri-business and redirect them to small farms that would stock local farmers’ markets, and she would cut our military spending in half and use that money to invest in a free college education for everybody. Super, remarked my ever-so-practical husband: After the revolution, “we can all go to work on organic farms.”

After the last presidential debate, moderator Candy Crowley similarly wrote off even asking a question about the future of the planet as a poor use of air time: “I had that question for all of you climate-change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing, so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.”

Obama has disappointed many environmentalists, but he did get tougher on mercury emissions from power plants, improve fuel-economy standards, reduce the amount of soot that factories can release and regulate greenhouse gases for the first time. Which is not remotely akin to Romney’s periodic expressions of doubt about climate change and view that regulations are job-killing.

Unlike Obama and Romney, Nader and Stein really are samesies. Yet maybe this is a different moment, because where Nader struck me as intellectually dishonest, insisting that Bush and Gore were all but indistinguishable, Stein seems as sensible as cod liver oil. Along with libertarians like Ron and Rand Paul, she’s thinking long-term. In politics as in love, comedy and real estate, nothing is more important than timing — and after Obama expands fracking and green-lights the Keystone Pipeline, she predicts, voters will come around.

Green Party presidential nominee Dr. Jill Stein talks to The Washington Post’s “The Fold” and responds to five key debate questions.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.