With Ralph Nader as inspiration, Green Party candidates and those from other third parties are crowding onto ballots nationwide in the highest numbers since the 1930s.
The big prizes _ president, governor, House and Senate _ are out of their reach. But scores of candidates have a real chance in races for school boards, city councils and state legislatures.
More important, they could form the foundation for a viable third-party movement.
``It's a slow, deliberate process to build credible candidates,'' said Mike Feinstein, a Green and a member of the Santa Monica City Council. ``We not only have good ideas but can govern.''
This year, 264 Green Party candidates are running for office, double the number that ran in 1998, and three times the 80 that ran during the last presidential election.
Libertarians boast even bigger numbers, with an estimated 1,420 candidates, up from 836 in 1998. There are also candidates for the Reform Party, the Natural Law Party, the Constitution Party and at least a half-dozen more.
``There's no doubt that it's the most we've seen since the Great Depression,'' said David Gillespie, a political science professor at Presbyterian College in South Carolina who specializes in third parties.
Nader is drawing enough support to affect a tight presidential race. Supporters hope he will get 5 percent on Nov. 7 so that he can qualify for federal funds for 2004 _ money that could help build the party.
The Greens now hold 72 elected offices in 17 states, all local seats. The Libertarians hold 176 elected offices. The Reform Party claims 40 elected offices. Other parties hold a smattering, if any. Among the top seats, Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota governor's office with the Independence Party, and Maine's Gov. Angus King is an independent.
Still, not one third-party member is in Congress. As for state legislatures, the lone Libertarian lawmaker is running as a Republican in Vermont, and the Greens' only legislator in California quit the party to run as an independent. (Vermont also has four Progressive state lawmakers, and 14 independents are scattered around the country).
But this year could bring a higher profile. Greens are running 81 legislative candidates, four times as many as in the last election. Libertarians predict a dozen competitive legislative races, particularly in Nevada, Colorado and Connecticut.
Supporters say the time is ripe for a third-party movement. The reason: growing numbers of independents, low turnout at each election, and the tight race for president. The two parties fail to answer the electorate's desires, they say.
``If a party could unify the disparate voices out there, the Reform, the Natural Law, the Greens, I believe you'd have the makings for a powerful new generation of politics,'' said Bob Roth, director of communications for the Natural Law Party.
He envisions a new coalition party that forces the Republicans and Democrats to merge.
Gillespie, on the other hand, sees an influential third party of the ``militant center'' that combines the Republicans' fiscal demands and the Democrats' social views.
Others say third-party advocates are overreaching.
The economy is too strong and no third party has made enough significant gains yet, said Cal Jillson, chairman of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The last successful third party, he said, was the Republicans, who built on the rift over slavery, then won a series of elections before Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860.
``It's very difficult,'' Jillson said. ``You need a constellation of events, a galvanizing personality, and then you need a lightning strike of genius. The whole system is built to forestall that from happening.''