WASHINGTON -- There's 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" multisports event that compare to the Olympics the way 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 J. Kucinich of Ohio to provoke their liberal souls with his vegan version of red meat. He calls for Vice President Dick Cheney's impeachment and for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
Such 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.
Mr. Paul performed a similar service in the South Carolina debate of the 10 GOP presidential hopefuls, although few of his competitors sounded very appreciative.
Mr. Paul and Mr. 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.
Independents and big names from both major parties have organized a project, called Unity08, which hopes to run a middle-of-the-road, bipartisan alternative to the GOP and Democratic nominees.
The main organizers, Republican consultant Doug Bailey and Democrats Gerald Rafshoon and Hamilton Jordan, who both 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 that 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, and raise the $10 million or so that a new party would need to get started.
The Internet gives today's new movements that kind of new power. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama have shown how a newcomer with maverick star power and a provocative agenda can raise money as quickly as the old stars with their old-style organizations.
The timing is right too.
Party allegiance has hit its lowest tide since the birth of scientific polling. As many as a third of American voters now call themselves "independent." Many are waiting to be wooed by a fresh and new alternative.
With the big states pushing their presidential primaries up the calendar to be part of the early action, the nominee of both parties could be chosen by early February. For the first time, that will leave nine months for boredom, second thoughts and candidate implosions. Enter the Unity08 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, typically after Labor Day.
Who might that ticket be? Organizers are insisting on a ticket that will bring 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, Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona (both of whom voted for the Iraq war) win their parties' nominations, Unity08 could provide an alternative ticket. My Newsweek column-writing colleague Eleanor Clift recently raised the possibility of an anti-war Unity08 ticket of Mr. Obama and Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican Vietnam War veteran. Both men are critics of President Bush's Iraq policy.
But judging by the hyperbolic temperament of most Internet political junkies with whom I have had experience, Mr. Hagel and Mr. Obama might not be maverick enough.
A Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich ticket would have a better chance. Mr. Paul, for example, scored 91 percent support in a recent straw poll of more than 300 Web-heads by a Web site called USAElectionPolls.com, even though he scores barely 1 percent in scientific polls.
The Internet crowd loves its red meat, whether it comes from cows or tofu.
That gives X-tremers such as Mr. Paul and Mr. Kucinich a chance to win Unity08, as soon as they work out who gets top billing.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ellen Goodman's column will appear next Monday.