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Third-party candidates square off in debate with little fanfare

By Bob Secter, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — As debates go, it was hardly the Romney vs. Obama beat down in Boca Raton or even the curious sleepwalk in Denver.

But Chicago, where the modern presidential debate began in 1960 with John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, played host to another presidential faceoff Tuesday night, albeit with candidates from the undercard of Election 2012.

Libertarian Gary Johnson, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party met in a debate moderated by Larry King, formerly of CNN.

The event, hosted by a group with links to a self-styled Chicago-based anti-tax crusader, was held at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, ground zero for so much politically inspired chaos in the 1968 presidential race.

This time, however, it was unlikely the whole world was watching.

As recently as Monday, organizers were offering half-price ticket specials and complaining of being ignored by TV and the big cable news networks.

Such is the conundrum faced most every election season by candidates from off brand parties.

“The whole thing is sort of like a dog chasing his tail,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a veteran political media consultant who now teaches advertising at Boston University. “You need to get attention to break into the media — and to get attention, you need to have broken into the media.”

Despite all the voter frustration with polarization and gridlock, politics in the U.S. remains largely a two-party affair and those outside the mainstream have a hard time selling their relevance beyond a small but passionate core of supporters.

Not that any of Tuesday’s participants has a chance of coming close on Nov. 6. But there might be a spoiler alert, as in they could spoil the election for one of the bigger fish on the ballot.

Just ask supporters of Al Gore, who believed the 2000 candidacy of consumer activist Ralph Nader siphoned off just enough votes in critical Florida to spark a sequence of events that sent the election to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately to George W. Bush.

In 2012, Florida is again a swing state and this time its ballot lists 18 presidential contenders, including comedian Roseanne Barr.

Perhaps even more significant might be Virginia, where polls show the race a tie between Obama and Romney. But the right leaning Johnson and Goode are the only other two candidates on the ballot, and Goode as a former Virginia congressman holds a real potential to draw votes from Romney’s conservative flank.

Tuesday’s debate was organized by the little known Free and Equal Elections Foundation. It is a non-profit founded by 31-year-old Christina Tobin, CEO of Free and Equal Inc., a firm that specializes in circulating political nominating petitions. She also is vice-president of the Chicago-based Taxpayers United of America, run by her father, Jim Tobin.

That group, under various names, has served for decades as a vehicle to oppose tax hikes for any reason as well as disseminate the elder Tobin’s revisionist take on history. That includes essays attacking the integrity and motives of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, the former for leading the nation into Civil War and the latter for getting America into World War II.

Christina Tobin’s foundation said Tuesday’s debate was aimed at giving voice to a broader range of candidates. Debate hosts such as the Commission on Presidential Debates typically set strict ground rules to set a high bar for third party candidates to qualify for a seat at the table or place at the podium.

That’s in part because Lincoln-Douglas quality these events are not, and it’s hard enough keeping them on track and substantive. A crowd on the stage just makes it all the harder.

Think back to the onslaught of Republican presidential primary debates in this campaign, which sometimes descended into shout fests and in the early going included as many as nine candidates.

One of those was Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, who gained no traction, was excluded from later Republican debates and eventually became the Libertarian Party nominee. As its presidential candidate, Johnson was shut out of the Obama/Romney debates, leading to his consolation appearance in Chicago.

Among his debate opponents were the left-leaning Stein, a Massachusetts physician, arrested last week trying to crash the town hall style presidential debate at Long Island’s Hofstra University.

Also from the left was Anderson, the former Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, who now represents the Justice Party whose website calls for universal health care and free college for all.

And joining Johnson on the right was Goode, elected first to Congress as a Democrat, then an independent and then a Republican before losing his seat and joining the little-known Constitution Party. It seeks an end to welfare, Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service.

None of the four appear on ballots in all 50 states, though they appear in different combinations in swing states. Only Johnson and Stein have qualified for the ballot in Illinois.

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