Voters in all 50 states will have the option on their ballot to vote for a black woman for president. In all states but three, they will be able to choose a former Republican congressman who is now a Libertarian. Neither Lenora Fulani of the New Alliance Party nor Ron Paul of the Libertarian Party will garner anything near the votes of the two major political party candidates. Nor will any of the 15 other third-party or independent presidential candidates whose names will appear on at least one statewide ballot.
But in a year when polls show many voters lacking enthusiasm for both Michael Dukakis and George Bush, the door should be open for more serious consideration of the third-party candidates.
``The candidates of the major political parties ... are simply unacceptable as presidential material,'' wrote Virginia D. Hall in a recent letter to the editor of the Dallas Morning News. ``We have reached the point where we must have other alternatives,'' she added, concluding with her endorsement of Mr. Paul.
Still, most Americans do not appear to be looking seriously for alternatives to the two-party lineup. Political scientist Austin Ranney, from the University of California at Berkeley, notes that third parties tend to flourish only when there is general enthusiasm for politics - which doesn't appear to be the case this year.
``This is the '80s, not the '60s,'' says Thomas Keating, who teaches American government at Arizona State University. ``People are not as passionate about the issues, and they don't seem to have the dissatisfaction to look into the third-party candidates on their own inclination.''
Neither of the two major candidates is capturing the voters' imagination, Dr. Keating adds. This should make it a good year for alternatives to come forward, he says. ``If there were a John Anderson out there, it might be different,'' he says; ``but I don't see any of the third-party candidates any more effective [than the major-party candidates], with either personalities or issues.''
This summer there was talk among some political observers that in certain pivotal states - including Paul's home state of Texas - the vote totals for third-party candidates could conceivably be large enough to throw the election from one major-party candidate to the other. But such conjecture has waned recently, in part for the following reasons:
Vice-President Bush appears to have been successful in labeling Governor Dukakis an ``out of step,'' perhaps even dangerous, liberal. This, political analysts say, has pulled back into his column restless conservatives who might have considered a protest vote for Paul.
Jesse Jackson's stepped-up and better-publicized support for Mr. Dukakis in recent weeks should bolster the Democratic candidate's standing with black voters. That would short-circuit Dr. Fulani's efforts to pull black votes from Dukakis by emphasizing what she calls the Democratic Party's poor treatment of the Rev. Mr. Jackson.
If, as some polls now indicate, the election is not close and Mr. Bush wins easily, votes for third-party candidates lose their ``giant killer'' potential.
Libertarian Party activists say they expect Paul, who represented the congressional district south of Houston until 1984, to do much better than their party's previous best in a presidential race, which was about 1 million votes in 1980. This year Paul is on the ballot in all states but Indiana, North Carolina, and West Virginia. Some political observers believe he will be fortunate to do as well.
But Paul, who advocates unbridled civil liberties, a non-interventionist foreign policy, a truly free market economy, minimal federal spending - he's refused federal matching campaign funds out of principle - and a return to the gold standard for currency, says an evolution in campaigning since 1980 will allow him to reach more Americans. Growth in cable news programming and local news operations diffuses coverage and gives the public better access to alternative campaigns, he says.
Fulani, whose campaign has been boosted by $880,000 in matching funds from the Federal Election Commission, appears to be running primarily to deny Dukakis the presidency. In campaign appearances, she stresses that blacks will benefit from the political system only when they sever their ``blind'' allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Fulani has said she refuses to allow ``the agenda of the black community to be killed by the Democratic Party's plea for unity.''
The platform of the New York-based New Alliance Party calls for free education from day care through graduate school, more housing for the homeless and the poor, increased funding for nonnuclear energy sources, a moratorium on farm foreclosures, and more liberal immigration laws.
Fulani's campaign claims to be making inroads with black voters, but political observers remain skeptical. ``Berkeley is hardly in the mainstream, but it should be a pretty good indicator'' for whether Fulani is generating any excitement on the left, Dr. Ranney says. ``But I have not seen any poster, any sign of a meeting, any anything about her.''
From the Associated Press:
Getting on the ballot is tedious as well as expensive for minor candidates. It usually requires the collection of thousands of signatures in each state. Voters may also write in the names of anyone who catches their fancy, but that can be difficult when voting is by machine. Few voters do it.
Qualifying for federal matching funds also requires a more extensive organization than most third-party or independent candidates can muster. To prove to the Federal Election Commission that there is more to their bids than simply their own dreams, candidates must raise at least $5,000, in donations of $250 or less, in each of 20 states.