For 90 minutes, a quartet of longer-than-longshot presidential hopefuls reveled in their  “debate” in Chicago, available to all the world via C-SPAN, Al Jazeera and the miracle of live-streaming by the sponsoring Free and Equal Elections Foundation and other lesser-known cyber-channels.

Four third-party candidates held their own presidential debate in Chicago. It was moderated by former CNN host Larry King.

Standing behind lecterns on a Hilton Hotel stage in the hopes of changing as many hearts and minds as possible were  Jill Stein of the Green Party, a physician who in 2002 ran against Mitt Romney for the Massachusetts governorship; businessman and two-term New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson for the Libertarians; the Justice Party’s human rights activist and Democratic two-term Salt Lake City mayor, Rocky Anderson; and Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent six-term conservative Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode for the Constitution Party.

All denounced what Anderson called the Democratic-Republican “duopoly” that  is strangling democracy, and the billions in what Stein dubbed “private interest” dollars poisoning the body politic.  They answered questions that real voters submitted via social media, from immigration reform (make coming here “as easy as possible” for tax-paying emigres, said Johnson; freeze immigrant green cards until the U.S. jobless rate dips below 5 percent, countered Goode) to legalizing pot (three say yes, Goode says no), to cutting military spending and expanded U.S. global engagement (yes, all around).

One night after an aggressive President Barack “bayonets and horses” Obama and a more conciliatory Mitt “I agree with the President” Romney finished the last of their three ritualized encounters, so carefully staged by the Commission on Presidential Debates, these outsiders gathered in an alternate political universe to declare that they, not Obama or Romney, deserve to win the White House.

Though none polls higher than low single digits, Johnson and Goode in particular could tip the balance in very tight state races. Several political pros believe they would siphon more votes from Romney than Obama, most likely in battleground Colorado and New Hampshire.

Goode, arguably the most fiscally and socially conservative of the lot, vowed to balance the federal budget now, not later; to promote “jobs for American citizens first” and push bills to “get rid of super PACs”  and plain old PACs. Johnson, touting his record hiring 1,000 workers in his construction firm and vetoing 750 bills as governor, hewed to the Libertarian line of killing off the IRS, replacing personal and corporate income taxes with a national expenditure tax, getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan and repealing the Patriot Act.

Stein promoted a “Green New Deal” to create 25 million eco-friendly jobs, Medicare coverage for all and “bailing out students, not Wall Street.” Anderson blasted Democrats and Republicans alike for backing the war on terror because “our Constitution has been shredded” while U.S. citizens have lost basic civil rights.

Asked what constitutional amendment each would push if they didn’t have to worry about opposition from pesky members of Congress and state legislatures, Goode and Johnson chose term limits for lawmakers. Anderson opted for legal protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, while Stein cited campaign finance laws that ensure “money is not speech and corporations are not people.”

For better or worse, none of these candidates has a real chance of winning, but that did not lessen my delight in  this event. I’ve been a debate junkie for decades, and was a panelist in the first George Bush-Michael Dukakis face-off while working for the Orlando Sentinel. On Monday, appearing with four  other longtime political reporters discussing Campaign 2012, I urged some 500 female high school students to watch this one for a sense of how major issues were being addressed by the Indie Four as opposed to the Big Two.

The underdog debate moderator was Larry King, CNN’s former talk show titan, who is  now working for Ora TV, a subscription Internet channel (which obligingly carried the event).  Sporting his trademark red suspenders with a patriotic dark blue shirt — sans jacket, of course — King announced he’d accepted the prime-time gig because he believes “all voices should be heard,” and because years ago “I introduced Ross Perot to the public.” That would be the wealthy Texas businessman who ran as a third-party candidate in 1992 and is credited with taking enough votes from George H.W. Bush to give the election to Democrat Bill Clinton.

King shared the moderator’s table with Christina Tobin, now 31, who founded the sponsoring nonprofit, ballot-access and political transparency group. She thanked her dad for his inspiration. Turns out she defended 60,000 of his ballot petition signatures when he ran as a Libertarian for lieutenant governor of Illinois in 1992, and has done similar work for insurgents ranging from Ralph Nader to Socialist Party candidates.

Because there were no rules against cheering, clapping and other human reactions to strongly-held opinions, several lines brought down the house. My personal fave was Gary Johnson’s final appeal for support.

“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.”

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and reporter and columnist focusing on politics, culture and design. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Town & Country and More, and she is at work on a memoir.