Despite Prosperity, Third-Party Tickets Grow

But challengers to GOP and Democratic hegemony start with small, local steps.

Unfazed by Ross Perot's two failed bids for president, America's actively disgruntled voters have increasingly thrown their lots behind startup parties of the left, right, and middle.

Although the buoyant economy and a low jobless rate would seem to present a formidable challenge for anyone advocating change, this year's list of independent and third-party candidates is the largest in nearly a half century.

Their mere presence is sending a message to Democrats and Republicans that a sizable slice of the American public remains concerned with their approach to governing. But as these novices and newcomers head out on the campaign trail, they also know that idealism alone isn't enough to prevail: They must overcome voter apathy and a centuries-old two-party system to make gains.

If the movement has a face, it's likely to resemble the grandmotherly Louise Banner-Welch, a Reform Party candidate for Hunt County judge here. Like other activists, she sees a number of good opportunities this year, but emphasizes the long-term goals over short-term success.

"My campaign is a foot in the door, and I think I have a chance," says Mrs. Welch, a retired Methodist pastor and the only Reform Party candidate on Texas ballots this year. "Yet I think the Reform Party will benefit whether or not I win, because we have learned a lot about what it takes to make a party work."

Perhaps the biggest hurdle third parties face is mental: They must start winning elections to keep their momentum. Given the nation's winner-take-all electoral system, and the high number of signatures required to gain ballot access, it's a challenge that few parties are likely to surmount. But with growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, some experts say it's just a matter of time.

"I think there will be a lot of good showings this year," says Richard Winger, editor of the Ballot Access Newsletter in San Francisco. Dismissing the widely held view that a strong economy will reduce the level of voter anger, and thus the appeal of smaller populist parties, he says, "People might not be miserable, but there's a lot of public sentiment that government is not being managed well."

Indeed, if there is anything that binds the five nationally organized minor parties, it is that they all say the status quo stinks. From there, the similarities and unity crumble.

On the left, the Green Party calls for greater protection of the environment and restrictions on industry. In the middle, the Reform Party calls for a more populist approach to government based on business principles. On the right, the US Taxpayers Party calls for abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and banning abortion. Less definable is the Libertarian Party, which seeks a society based on minimal government, greater personal freedom, and self-responsibility.

Finding common ground among this crowd is not easy. And with so many competing approaches to reform, it's difficult for any one of them to attract enough signatures to get on the ballot, let alone get elected.

"Some of the most discontented people are the working class and poor on one side and the middle-class moderate or liberals on the other. Getting these two groups together on any one issue is a difficult task," says Curtis Gans, head of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington.

A formidable force

But even in this ungalvanized form, third parties could prove to be a force. Thirty years ago, 45 percent of Americans registered as Democrats, 25 percent as Republicans, and 3 percent as other. Today, Democrats are 33 percent, Republicans are 22 percent, and independent voters are 14 percent. These changing identities translate into increasing turmoil at the polls. In the 1996 presidential election, almost four times as many people voted for minor parties than did in 1984.

Thus far, third parties have made their greatest mark in smaller states. In Vermont, the Progressive Coalition has three members in the state legislature. Alaska has two Libertarians and one Alaska Independence Party member in its statehouse, and New Hampshire has elected Libertarians to office in years past.

More recently, in New Mexico the Greens have grown to such an extent that President Clinton recently traveled there and urged Democrats, especially younger ones, not to "waste their vote" on the Greens. "Under Clinton, the Democrats have lost 1,200 state and local seats," says Steven Schmidt, a member of the New Mexico Greens. "People blame the Greens, but polls show we're pulling from both sides."

As smaller parties strive for credibility, most voters show their dissatisfaction by not voting at all, a trend that hurts independent parties the most. "Liberal Democrats vote, right-wing Republicans vote, but it's the swing voters, the political middle that stays home," says Lloyd Leonard, spokesman for the League of Women Voters in Washington.

Not if Russell Verney has his way. As head of the national Reform Party in Dallas, he is trying to focus attention and resources on races that his small party can actually win. This means getting elected to municipal, county, and state offices first, then changing the electoral system from the inside. It's a slow process, but he's hoping that by that time the two major parties will be on their way to self-destruction.

"If you look at the Republicans, from Jesse Helms to Christine Todd Whitman, why are they in the same party?" he asks. "And ... why are Ted Kennedy and Sam Nunn in the same party? Cash! It's a source of money."

Eventually, Mr. Verney says, Republicans and Democrats will swing so far to the extremes that they will alienate the middle-of-the-roaders, and Reform will be waiting for them. It's a refrain heard among many third parties.

The top contender

Of all the third-party candidates running this fall, experts say Jack Gargan stands the best chance of winning. Called the father of the third-party movement for his 1988 campaign called Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out, the former financial analyst is running against incumbent Rep. Karen Thurman (D). The Republican has dropped out.

"It's not going to be a cakewalk," Mr. Gargan says. "But [the incumbent] is a liberal as you can get, and that doesn't sit will with farmers and the elderly."

For her part, Mrs. Welch, the would-be county judge in Texas, says politics is a nobler profession than many current officeholders, and constituents, realize. "I see politics as a function of prophecy," she says. "Amos, Nehemiah, they saw it as a duty to choose between right and wrong. I don't think there's anything nobler than working to the good."

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