It's long after dark outside the Giant Food supermarket at the Dorsey's Search Village Center in Howard County, and Kevin Zeese is in the parking lot looking for votes.
He spots three people standing around a car and makes his way over. Tracy Meyers and Mark Davis are visiting Giant worker Laura Riesett on her break. Zeese shakes hands, introduces himself and tells them he is running for the U.S. Senate.
"I've been opposed to the war in Iraq from the beginning," he says. "I have a tax plan that will let people keep more of their money. I'm trying to address some of the issues that the two major parties aren't paying attention to."
Riesett calls the pitch "somewhat interesting." She hasn't begun to pay attention to the Senate race but says she would consider voting for a third-party candidate.
Zeese calls it "midnight campaigning" - late-night visits to businesses and workplaces, when he says customers and workers have more time to talk and listen. It's one way the 51-year-old attorney and activist is trying to build support for a historic challenge to the two-party grip on Maryland politics.
As an outsider trying to crash the close contest between Democratic U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele - experienced politicians both supported by their national parties --- Zeese doesn't stand a chance, analysts say. He has raised about $70,000 to his opponents' millions, and he has struggled to gain news media coverage.
"I don't expect him to poll more than 2 or 3 percent," says James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Maryland has never really had a third-party tradition. That makes it difficult, particularly when you've got an electorate that is pretty polarized between the two major parties."
And yet. Zeese is believed to be the first candidate anywhere in the country to win the endorsements of both the Green Party and the Libertarian Party (he also has the support of the Maryland's small Populist Party). Polls show broad support for alternatives to the Democratic and Republican parties. The proportion of Maryland voters registered to other parties or as independents has grown to more than 16 percent.
Zeese has won inclusion in at least some of the Senate debates - an apparent first for a third-party candidate in Maryland. His calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, national health insurance and a radical restructuring of the federal income tax drew cheers last week at the first debate, before the Greater Baltimore Urban League. He is campaigning throughout the state and aims to run advertisements on cable television.
"I'm running to win," Zeese says. "And I really think if we can make a three-way race out of this, and people hear my views, I will win. Those are hard things to do, so I'm not predicting it. But even if I get something as little as 5 percent, it will be a message to the two parties that they'd better wake up - and you'll see much more talk about the issues I'm talking about."
He speaks in the second-floor study of the Takoma Park home he shares with partner Linda Schade, an activist who opposes electronic voting. Books on politics, economics and international relations fill shelves, pile up on tables, spill onto the floor. Pictures of Zeese with antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders compete for wall space with campaign memorabilia from some notable third-party candidates of the past: Theodore Roosevelt, Eugene V. Debs, Ralph Nader.
Downstairs, a group of young workers - including Alex, the older of Zeese's two sons - staff campaign headquarters. Out front is a hybrid Honda Civic; water in the house is heated by solar energy.
A native of Queens and a graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo, Zeese came to Washington to attend law school at George Washington University in 1977 and never left. He began his legal career as chief counsel of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, but his activism would soon broaden. He has co-founded Common Sense for Drug Policy, the antiwar group Democracy Rising, and TrueVoteMD, which is pushing for paper ballots in the November election.
Now he is taking aim at the two-party system.
Having served as Nader's press secretary during the consumer advocate's independent bid for the White House in 2004, Zeese has launched his own run for office.
He begins appearances by quoting Sen. John McCain. In 1999, the Arizona Republican described the campaign finance system as "nothing less than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."
It's that scheme, and the special interests that take advantage of it, that prevent Congress from enacting the real changes that voters want, Zeese says. He favors national health insurance through a single-payer system. He speaks of developing biodiesel, wind and solar energy, and creating energy-producing homes that would support hybrid electric cars, to make the country energy-independent.
He has called for the elimination of federal income tax on all earnings up to $100,000. He says the government could more than triple the lost revenue by instituting a "microtax" of one-tenth of 1 percent on the purchase of stocks, bonds and currency derivatives - the "Tobin Tax" promoted by the Nobel Prize-winning Yale economist James Tobin.
On Iraq, Zeese - who argues that his positions are supported by most Maryland voters - has called for an orderly but immediate military and corporate withdrawal from Iraq, a process that he says would take four to six months. He would follow with a South African-style truth-and-reconciliation process in which the United States would own up to mistakes - he points to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, indiscriminate bombing in Fallujah and civilian deaths in Haditha. He would also have the United States help fund, but not contribute troops to, an international peacekeeping force, if the Iraqis wanted one.
He says the United States should stop talk of bombing Iran and end what he describes as Washington's insufficiently critical support of Israel for a more inclusive diplomacy in the Middle East.
"I was amazed on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 we still don't have the answer to the question, 'Why do they hate us?' " says Zeese. "They hate us because we have bad policies in the region. We have military bases where we shouldn't have them. We support abusive dictatorships where we shouldn't support them. And we try to undermine regimes openly."
Douglas McNeil, an executive board member of the Baltimore Libertarian Party, said Zeese is advocating positions popular with many small parties.
"We're all against the war on Iraq. We're all against the Patriot Act. We're all against corporate welfare," McNeil said.
Zeese is registered to the Green Party, which has 8,023 members in Maryland. He's a member of the Libertarian Party, which has 4,059 members here, and the Populist party, which has 90.
The Democrats boast 1.7 million of the 3.1 million registered voters in Maryland, and the Republicans have more than 900,000. But state Green Party Co-Chairman Tim Willard sees growing support for alternatives.
"He could win if he had the same name recognition and the same exposure that the other candidates have," Willard says. "I think he's the most qualified. ... It would take a miracle, but that's what we're shooting for."
Nader joined Zeese recently at an event that brought the parties together. Nader calls Zeese "enormously informed" and says he is helping to promote the cause of third parties.
"I think if he gets in on the six debates, he can turn it into a three-way race, and that changes the whole dynamics," Nader says. "That's the best scenario for Kevin. But the intermediate one is, it will change the dynamics of it between the two. Whether it changes the stands they take remains to be seen. Maybe they will have to choose whether they're going to ignore them, or whether they're going to expand their agenda to try to take votes away from him."
Back in the Giant parking lot, Robert A. "Buzz" Kerr hears Zeese out. But he says he will probably vote for Cardin.
"I support the views of the Green Party," says Kerr, an associate academic dean at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacology. "But I think it's real important for the Democrats to take control of Congress."
Zach Messitte, a professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland, has hosted Zeese at the school's Center for the Study of Democracy. He says Zeese "certainly brings a different perspective" to the race, but says he is unlikely to attract enough support to affect the frontrunners. He cites a recent poll conducted for The Sun that showed Cardin leading Steele among likely voters, 51 percent to 40 percent.
"My sense is that people who support him already are going to support him," Messitte said. "But I don't think that Zeese in his wildest dreams gets 11 points."
But Zeese says that if he can get his message out, he'll do better than that: He'll win.
"It's really interesting watching the Cardin and Steele ads, because it's so obvious from their polling what they think Marylanders want," he says. "What they're pretending to be is independent, antiwar, anti-special interest - which is what I am. What it adds up to is me."email@example.com