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Could the internet launch a third-party candidate in 2008?

At the L.A. Times, columnist Ronald Brownstein is asking a key question: Given the power of the net to rapidly organize passionate people around a dynamic candidate, could it launch a third-party candidate to the White House?

He quotes Joe Trippi, the dynamo behind the Howard Dean campaign:

Trippi believes an independent presidential candidate who struck a chord could organize support through the Internet just as inexpensively. "Somebody could come along and raise $200 million and have 600,000 people on the streets working for them without any party structure in the blink of an eye," he says.

In part, it's not just about the technology. It's also about the fact that the net rewards parties and candidates that mobilize and excite their core of supporters, the "base". That growing strategic shift may create space for a third-party of the passionate middle:

"We are now moving toward a very dangerous place for both parties," [Trippi] says. "It is becoming much more possible for an independent or third party to emerge because they are leaving so much space in the middle."

Of course, the whole idea starts with candidates with name identification and passionate supporters. Who could fit the bill? Cue Brownstein:

In such an environment, imagine the options available to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) if he doesn't win the 2008 Republican nomination, and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, now that he's dropped his flirtation with running for mayor of New York. If the two Vietnam veterans joined for an all-maverick independent ticket, they might inspire a gold rush of online support — and make the two national parties the latest example of the Internet's ability to threaten seemingly impregnable institutions.

Of course, Brownstein blows it one minor aspect of the scenario above: McCain can't run after losing the GOP nomination - as he wouldn't be legal on most state ballots with "sore loser" rules. He'd have to deliberately choose NOT to run in the GOP primaries in order to run third-party.

But other than that, it sounds fairly realistic to me.

Brendan Nyhan argues that winner-take-all politics will exclude third parties. Similarly, Nonplussed worries that a second-place finish in all 50 states that wins a plurality of the popular vote would destroy confidence in our electoral system. Chris Nolan pooh-poohs the whole idea of using the net this way. Bloggledygook and Threading the Needle argue that the center is pretty much dead.

Smitty's World says "told ya so." AmbivaBlog has a round-up of lots of third-party thinkers. Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum likes the idea, but doesn't think a centrist could pull it off. The Bull Moose is excited, talking about a "historic insurgency."