ST. PAUL, Minn. — They stand to gain from public fury over partisan gridlock in Washington. They're already assured a presidential ballot line in 17 states and are well on their way in 18 more. They have support from prominent people across the political spectrum.
So what's missing for Americans Elect, a group clearing a path for a middle-of-the-road, unity ticket this fall? Candidates with stature, money or both.
Amid the often rancorous GOP contest to determine Democratic President Barack Obama's November opponent, the Americans Elect drive is proceeding quietly. But two months from now, an unorthodox online primary will begin a whittling process that should result in a nominee by late June.
The political experiment comes at an intriguing time.
Public approval of Congress is at a record low, and more Americans than ever — 4 in 10 in a January Gallup survey — consider themselves political independents. Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe's surprising retirement announcement last week, citing Washington dysfunction, only heaped more focus on a push that's cast as a possible fix to the capital's ailing condition.
"The soil is tilled for this," said Elliot Ackerman, chief operating officer for Americans Elect.
On Monday, Ackerman's associates head to Montana to announce they've submitted almost triple the required signatures to qualify for that ballot.
By fall, the group expects a nominee to have access to ballots in all 50 states, to a fund providing public campaign dollars and to a debate stage that offers priceless exposure, much like Texas businessman Ross Perot got when he shook up the 1992 White House race and won 19 percent of the national vote.
Still, there is ample skepticism that the effort can do much more than make a point.
Edward Lazarus, a former Democratic consultant and the author of a book on third parties in America, said past efforts to upend the two-party system have had the most success when built around a charismatic candidate or a unifying ideology. For now, Americans Elect has neither.
"To say that we're going to create the vehicle for somebody and anoint 'the somebody' later without any kind of ideological underpinning other than 'we're really kind of disappointed, angry and hurt' — that just doesn't seem feasible," Lazarus said.
That's missing the point, Ackerman counters.
"What we're offering up is a new way to nominate. You could see a Republican and Democrat running together. You could see a Democrat and an independent," he said. "The fact of the matter is the way our political system is set up right now, you'll never see that."
Some familiar names from the business, political and diplomacy worlds are involved. For example, former GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, is on the group's board.
Democrat David Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and senator, provided his support in the name of giving "one-time shock therapy to the two-party system." Now president of the University of Oklahoma, Boren said he's not interested in running though he is trying to recruit a bipartisan pack of nationally known candidates. He and others connected to the group declined to identify their targets.
Boren is leaving himself an out if the process goes awry. "If it produced what I would view to be fringe candidates, then I will obviously not support the ticket," he said. "I will go back to one of the two party nominees, more likely to my own party."
In the eyes of the law, Americans Elect isn't considered a third party. That makes it somewhat easier to obtain ballot space, but it also means the candidate nominating process can be messy.
Any eligible voter with Internet access must be permitted to take part, inviting possible mischief. Already, there's been a flood of "drafted" candidates from the serious to the devious and everything in between.
Obama and GOP candidates Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are among the scores of options. So are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, business mogul Donald Trump, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Perot. Then there are the likes of conservative commentator Glenn Beck, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, radio shock jock Howard Stern and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
David Walker, who served as U.S. comptroller general during Democratic and Republican administrations, is on the draft list, too. Walker has toured the country warning of dire fiscal conditions on the horizon for America, sometimes sounding every bit a candidate. Just don't expect Walker to actually run.Comment on this story
"There's absolutely no question that I want to conduct an issue campaign in 2012 and to try to accomplish some of the same things Ross Perot did 20 years ago but without running for president," Walker said in an interview. "I believe that can be done in today's age."
Declared candidates or draft efforts must show a minimum level of support measured through Internet clicks and after three online primaries, the top six candidates advance to a final round. The nominee will be selected in a cyberspace convention that will wrap up by June 26.
Americans Elect: www.americanselect.org