HENRICO, Va. — The lone Virgil Goode campaign sign on a stretch of Virginia road was far outnumbered by placards promoting Mitt Romney.
That Goode's sign was there at all in this pivotal state served as a reminder that plucky third-party candidates like the Constitution Party's nominee could muck up the works on Election Day. Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is daring unsatisfied voters to "waste" their vote on him in the 48 states where he's on the ballot.
"I hope to rain on the party. And by that I mean the two parties," Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, told The Associated Press on Saturday as he wrapped up his late swing through battleground Ohio after a college-town push in Colorado. "I hope to rain on it big time."
Some polls have shown Johnson and former Virginia Rep. Goode, two not-long-ago Republicans, as primed to pull down more votes than the difference between President Barack Obama and Romney in critical states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Experts caution, however, that the overall tightness of the race tends to work against third-party candidates in the end as voters migrate back to the main nominees.
In every presidential campaign, there is talk about a credible alternative emerging to seriously test the Democratic and Republican nominees. Aside from Texas billionaire Ross Perot's 1992 campaign, the phenomenon has seldom panned out in recent times. A much-hyped bid this year to field a bipartisan ticket this time fizzled when Americans Elect, a group that had secured ballot space around the country, retreated in May.
The aim among the 2012 hopefuls seems more about roiling the two-party system.
Johnson is running a late batch of TV ads and airing them during the cheaper off-hours in only a half-dozen states. They urge people to "Be the 5 percent" by getting him to that vote threshold.
"In 2012, do something revolutionary. Cast a protest vote that counts," Johnson says, flashing a peace sign and emphasizing his "Live Free" slogan at the ad's end. He's casting himself as more fiscally conservative than Romney but more socially liberal than Obama.
Goode can't afford TV. His low-budget campaign has meant driving from state to state and staying in discount hotels. He's concentrated mainly on Virginia, where he held state or federal office until his congressional defeat in 2008.
First he was a Democrat, then an independent, and then came over to the GOP for his final House three terms. Goode's presidential run is under the Constitution Party banner. His name is on the ballot in a couple dozen states and he's qualified as a write-in candidate in several more. His overriding issue is a call for a freeze on legal immigration until the U.S. unemployment rate dips below 5 percent.
Republicans in Goode's home state tried unsuccessfully to keep him off the ballot. Some say he could throw the race to Obama if the outcome depends on Virginia's 13 electoral votes and Romney narrowly loses.
Goode displayed a so-what attitude as he prepared this weekend to distribute cards promoting his candidacy. It's an essential but unglamorous task for a candidate who has only four people on his payroll.
"It doesn't matter to me if it's Obama or Romney," said Goode. "Obama has done a bad job and Romney will do a bad job."
Goode and Johnson planned to attend a debate tonight in Washington, along with the Green Party's Jill Stein and the Justice Party's Rocky Anderson.
Fittingly, the moderator is consumer watchdog Ralph Nader, the last third-party presidential candidate to send a jolt through a presidential race. Democrats still blame Nader for costing their party the presidency in 2000 because his Green Party candidacy drew nearly 100,000 votes in Florida, which Republican George W. Bush ended up winning by 537 votes over Al Gore. Nader and his supporters dismiss it as whining.