CHICAGO -- Away from the bright lights and fanfare of the just-completed presidential debates, four third-party White House hopefuls debated this past Tuesday night, coming from starkly different political perspectives but uniting in agreement that neither Mitt Romney nor President Barack Obama can solve the nation’s biggest problems.
A day after Obama and Romney debated for the final time, the long-shots took a turn. In a hotel ballroom here just a block from Grant Park, where Obama delivered his victory speech in 2008, they addressed many of the same issues the major-party candidates have wrangled over — the economy, foreign policy, education — but also addressed matters, such as drugs, that have not been focal points in the race between Obama and Romney.
Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, earned the loudest applause during the debate’s opening moments. He railed against the domestic and foreign policy proposals that both major-party candidates have put forth, and he called for the legalization of marijuana.
“In no category is marijuana more dangerous than alcohol,” said Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico who also wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and do away with income and corporate taxes in favor of an expenditure tax.
Johnson also criticized the length of the war in Afghanistan. “I thought initially that was totally warranted,” he said, before adding that the United States should “have gotten out of Afghanistan 11 years ago.”
The former governor saved perhaps his most memorable line of the night for the end of the debate, when he declared: “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.”
Constitution Party nominee Virgil Goode, a former Virginia congressman and hard-line anti-immigration candidate, proposed a moratorium on green card admissions into the United States until unemployment falls below 5 percent nationally. He earned only a smattering of cheers when he pitched his plan.
Green Party nominee Jill Stein and Justice Party nominee Rocky Anderson rounded out the lineup on stage. Stein, who ran for governor of Massachusetts against Romney in 2002, called for free public higher education. “Let’s bail out the students,” she declared.
The debate was moderated by former CNN host Larry King and presented by the nonpartisan Free and Equal Elections Foundation. The questions were submitted via social media, and the issues ranged from the war on drugs to the economy to civil rights.
Absent were the pregame formalities that colored the higher-profile debates between the president and his Republican challenger.
There were no cable network countdown shows and no well-known pols reporting for surrogate duty. While the debate was streamed live online, TV networks didn’t air it.
Time and again, the candidates expressed their dissatisfaction with both Romney and Obama. Goode blasted the budget plans from both Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Romney’s running mate, and the president.
Stein said neither candidate offers an acceptable way forward on the issues that matter.
“Things are not working, and there is not a single exit strategy on the table being offered by Mitt Romney or Barack Obama,” Stein said in an interview before the debate.
At best, the four candidates who appeared together Tuesday are each expected to compete for single-digit percentages of the vote in the states where they will appear on the ballot.
Not one has made a showing on the national radar akin to Ross Perot in 1992, when the Texas billionaire and third-party candidate carried nearly 20 percent of the popular vote. Goode, Johnson and Stein each claimed 1 percent support in an early September Gallup poll of national adults.
But even if they attract only nominal enthusiasm, these long-shots could become entangled in the race between Romney and Obama.
Johnson will appear on the ballot in 48 states, including some key battlegrounds with independent streaks where his blend of fiscal conservatism and libertarian social views could make him a compelling alternative for conservative voters not wedded to voting for Romney.
In Colorado, New Hampshire and Nevada, in particular, Johnson could be a thorn in Romney’s side if the election is close. Johnson received just 2 percent support in a recent Suffolk University-News 7 survey of those likeliest to vote in New Hampshire.
But the poll also showed that Johnson hurt Romney more than Obama.
“Politics is full of ironies. Gary Johnson voters are predisposed to voting against the incumbent president, but Johnson’s presence on the New Hampshire presidential ballot is actually helping Obama,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
If Virginia is exceptionally close, Goode, despite attracting just 2 percent support in a mid-September Washington Post poll in that state, could be an also-ran to remember.
The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent congressman — who could benefit from residual name identification in southern Virginia — threatens to steal support from Romney at the margins, potentially costing the Republican big.