One thing I appreciate about what I call the "X-treme" candidates in the presidential debates: When they speak, sometimes a real debate almost breaks out.
The X-treme candidates are always out there dancing on the edges of politics like skateboarders at the X Games, the annual televised "extreme sports" that compare to the Olympics in the way that demolition derbies compare to the Indianapolis 500.
There's Rep. Ron Paul, the government-shrinking libertarian from Texas, who runs as a Republican while criticizing the party's spendthrift ways and overseas adventurism.
Democrats have Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio to provoke their liberal souls with his vegan version of red meat. He calls for Vice President Cheney's impeachment and for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Such extreme positions serve a dual purpose: They fire up the party's base while also making the party's top-tier candidates sound like thoughtful moderates, which only helps their appeal to swing voters.
Paul served a similar service in the South Carolina debate of the ten GOP hopefuls, although few of his fellow Republicans sounded very appreciative.
Paul and Kucinich came to mind as I was considering the prospects for what this column is really about, the possible rise of a third party candidate, generated on the Internet.
Some big names from both parties and from neither party have organized the project, called Unity '08 to run a middle-of-the-road bipartisan alternative to the nominees of the two major parties.
The main organizers, Republican consultant Doug Bailey and Democrats Jerry Rafshoon and Hamilton Jordan, who worked in the Carter White House, say they originally planned to write a book together about the broken political system. Somewhere in their discussions somebody must have pointed out there are already about 18 bazillion bipartisan books on the shelves about how the system is broken.
So they came up with a big idea: Recruit 10 million people to be delegates for a virtual convention to be held on the Web in June 2008. Donations will be appreciated, too. Campaigns do cost money, but 10 million people wouldn't have to suffer much pain to raise the $10 million or so that a new party would need to get started.
The Internet gives to today's new movements that kind of new power. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2004 and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama this year have shown how quickly a newcomer with maverick star power and a provocative agenda can raise money as quickly as the old stars with their old-style organizations can.
The timing is right, too. Party allegiance has hit its lowest tide since the birth of scientific polling. As many as one-third of American voters now call themselves "independent." Although most still tend to vote for one party's ticket or the other, many are waiting to be wooed by a fresh and new alternative.
With the big states pushing their primaries up the calendar to be part of the early action, both parties' nominees could be chosen by early February. For the first time, that leaves nine months for boredom, second thoughts and candidate implosions to set in. Enter the Unity '08 surprise in June and there could be a whole new political ballgame by the time voters are ready to pay serious attention to the campaign after Labor Day.
But who might that Unity '08 ticket be? Organizers insist on a ticket that brings a Republican and a Democrat together. If either of the two major party nominees decides to woo Unity's endorsement, for example, he or she would have to name a vice president from the other party. Not likely, I say, but strange things happen in politics.
After all, if, say, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain win the nomination, both of whom voted for the war, it could make Unity '08 the anti-war alternative. My Newsweek column-writing colleague Eleanor Clift recently raised the possibility of an anti-war Unity '08 ticket of Obama and Sen. Chuck Hegel, a Nebraska Republican Vietnam War veteran. Both men are critics of Bush's Iraq policy.
But judging by the hyperbolic temperament of most Internet political junkies with whom I have had experience, Hegel and Obama might not be maverick enough.
A Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich ticket would have a better chance. Paul, for example, scored 91 percent support in a recent straw poll of more than 300 webheads by a Web site called USAElectionsPolls.com, even though he scores barely 1 percent in scientific polls.
The Internet crowd loves their red meat, whether it comes from cows or from tofu. That gives a X-tremers like Paul and Kucinich a chance to win Unity '08, if they work out who will be at the top of the ticket.