Third Parties Growing, But Is Anyone Noticing?

A SCOWL spreads across the weathered face of Wind Gap Hardware Store owner Calvin Stocker when he's asked about politics.

``When the Democrats are in control they say the Republicans are blocking everything. When the Republicans are in control they say the Democrats do it,'' Mr. Stocker says as he minds his cash register. ``It's the thieves policing the thieves.''

But when asked about the Patriot Party - the US's second-largest independent party whose national headquarters is only 50 yards up the street - a puzzled look spreads across Stocker's face.

``Other than a couple of signs,'' he says, ``I haven't heard of it.''

In an era of the angry voter, this would seem to be an ideal time for third party and other alternative candidates to flourish. To a certain extent, they are.

A record number of fledgling and long-standing third party and independent office-seekers are mounting aggressive campaigns around the country this year, adding a growing and distinctive voice to American politics.

But restive voters, as yet, appear unwilling to pull the lever for the lesser-known contenders.

Across the country, only two independent candidates have good shots at winning major public offices this fall. The dearth underscores the difficulty of trying to break through in a system that has been dominated by two parties since the days of the Founding Fathers.

``We've got an institutionalized two-party system and it's very unlikely we'll see any third party develop,'' says Charles Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, which monitors races across the US.

``I think there has to be an ideological or a class structure or a personality that acts as glue,'' Mr. Cook says. ``Hating Washington isn't enough to form a party around.''

Voters in Wind Gap, a depressed mill town of 2,600 located in the rolling foothills of eastern Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, express deep frustration with the two-party system and the news media, but little enthusiasm for or knowledge of third parties.

``One [candidate] runs one ad saying one thing about the other [candidate] and then the other [candidate] runs his ad saying something else,'' hardware store owner Stocker says. ``The media just sensationalizes everything and take sides.... Where do you get the truth?''

Linda Pepitone, who runs a deli in Wind Gap with her husband, says her daughter and son-in-law have been forced to live at home because his jobs in a factory and auto-parts store pay him only $7.50 an hour.

``I think the US is falling apart,'' she says. ``I've talked to a lot of my customers, and they feel there's going to be a revolt if people in the middle [class] keep getting squeezed.''

A ``revolt'' is exactly what the Patriot Party - formed by former supporters of Texas billionaire Ross Perot - is hoping for. But Mrs. Pepitone, like other Wind Gap residents, didn't know that the party existed.

``They're out there, but we can't reach them without the resources,'' says Patriot Party national chairman and Wind Gap lawyer Nicholas Sabatine. ``By next April, the goal is to have all 50 states organized for a [1996] presidential campaign.''

Mr. Sabatine, dressed in a rumpled suit and looking exhausted from late-night campaign work, says political revolutions take time and money, and he is not discouraged by the party's low visibility in Wind Gap.

Patriot Party or affiliated parties are active in 30 states, Sabatine says, far more than were expected when the party held its first convention outside Washington in April.

On many ballots

Nationwide, third parties are running more candidates for office than they have since the 1930s. A near-record 65.8 percent of American voters will find Libertarian Party candidates on their ballot this fall; 21.6 percent will be able to vote for the US Taxpayers' Party; 21.6 percent for the Patriot Party; and 14.6 percent for the Green Party.

A recent Times-Mirror public opinion poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe the country needs a third political party - 12 points higher than a decade ago.

The Libertarian Party - the largest third party in the US - now holds a party record of 124 local public offices nationwide and four seats in the New Hampshire state legislature. Its candidates have a good chance to win seats in the Nevada and Delaware state legislatures this fall.

``Folks who are now on city and school councils are the people who will have the credibility and record of achievement to beat Republicans and Democrats in the future,'' says Libertarian Party spokesman Bill Winter.

But independent or third-party efforts to win higher office are not faring well.

Of the dozens of candidates for statewide or congressional office, only incumbent independent US Rep. Bernard Sanders in Vermont and independent gubernatorial candidate and millionaire Angus King in Maine have good chances of winning.

An independent governor is leaving office in Connecticut, but the independent candidate hoping to succeed him is running behind Republican and Democratic candidates.

Richard Winger, editor of San Francisco-based Ballot Access Newsletter, says the barriers major parties have erected to keep third parties off the ballot are fading in most states. But other factors will keep a viable third party from forming in the US.

``I think it will follow the path of the Socialist Party in the 1930s,'' Mr. Winger says. ``The major parties gradually adopted the most popular parts of their platform and killed them off.''

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