Some polls have shown Johnson and former Virginia Rep. Goode, two not-long-ago Republicans, as primed to pull down more votes than the difference between President Barack Obama and Romney in critical states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Experts caution, however, that the overall tightness of the race tends to work against third-party candidates in the end as voters migrate back to the main nominees.
In every presidential campaign, there is talk about a credible alternative emerging to seriously test the Democratic and Republican nominees. Aside from Texas billionaire Ross Perot's 1992 campaign, the phenomenon has seldom panned out in recent times. A much-hyped bid this year to field a bipartisan ticket this time fizzled when Americans Elect, a group that had secured ballot space around the country, retreated in May.
The aim among the 2012 hopefuls seems more about roiling the two-party system.
Johnson is running a late batch of TV ads and airing them during the cheaper off-hours in only a half-dozen states. They urge people to "Be the 5 percent" by getting him to that vote threshold.
"In 2012, do something revolutionary. Cast a protest vote that counts," Johnson says, flashing a peace sign and emphasizing his "Live Free" slogan at the ad's end. He's casting himself as more fiscally conservative than Romney but more socially liberal than Obama.
Goode can't afford TV. His low-budget campaign has meant driving from state to state and staying in discount hotels. He's concentrated mainly on Virginia, where he held state or federal office until his congressional defeat in 2008.
First he was a Democrat, then an independent, and then came over to the GOP for his final House three terms. Goode's presidential run is under the Constitution Party banner. His name is on the ballot in a couple dozen states and he's qualified as a write-in candidate in several more. His overriding issue is a call for a freeze on legal immigration until the U.S. unemployment rate dips below 5 percent.
Republicans in Goode's home state tried unsuccessfully to keep him off the ballot. Some say he could throw the race to Obama if the outcome depends on Virginia's 13 electoral votes and Romney narrowly loses.
Goode displayed a so-what attitude as he prepared this weekend to distribute cards promoting his candidacy. It's an essential but unglamorous task for a candidate who has only four people on his payroll.
"It doesn't matter to me if it's Obama or Romney," said Goode. "Obama has done a bad job and Romney will do a bad job."
Rocky Anderson to join third-party debate
Virgil Goode, of the Constitution Party, and Gary Johnson, of the Libertarian Party, will debate Sunday night in Washington, D.C., along with the Green Party's Jill Stein and former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, of the Justice Party.
Fittingly, the moderator is Ralph Nader, the last third-party presidential candidate to jolt a presidential race. Democrats still blame Green Party candidate Nader for costing their party the presidency in 2000 because he drew nearly 100,000 votes in Florida, which Republican George W. Bush won by 537 votes over Al Gore. Nader dismisses it as whining.
• Watch the debate live Sunday at 5:30 p.m. MST. > nader.org