Angus King, former Maine governor, readily admits that Unity08, a new political party he helped found that aims to nominate and support a bipartisan presidential ticket, is a long shot.
For one thing, third-party movements in the US have typically centered on either a charismatic leader or a hot-button issue - Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party in 1912, say, or the Republican Party and its opposition to slavery before the Civil War in the 1850s.
At present, Unity08 has neither. It is a Web site, www.unity08.com, where anyone can sign up as a "delegate" to an online convention planned for sometime in spring 2008, when a presidential ticket consisting of at least one Democrat and one Republican, or independents, will be chosen based on a yet-to-be determined platform.
But King's group - whose founders include Carter White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan and Hotline cofounder Doug Bailey - claims it can at least tap into the public's general disgust with political partisanship. (See "Unity08 goes online in push for White House," PRWeek, February 12.)
"Most people are fed up with the current state of American politics - the squabbling, the maneuvering for position and money, the special interests, and all that," says King, who served as an independent during his two gubernatorial terms from 1995 to 2003. "So we're developing a movement that definitely has resonance with the people. The tough part is, we're trying to rally people around an idea, a concept, as opposed to a candidate or an issue. That is a tall order."
King argues that his success as an independent - he was re-elected with nearly 60% of the popular vote - shows politicians can win office and govern effectively without being a Democrat or a Republican. They may start out without any friends among voters or legislators, but they also don't begin with any enemies, he points out.
"It happens every now and then [that independents win gubernatorial elections], and it usually happens when the parties sort of lose touch or nominate candidates who aren't appealing for one reason or another," says King, with former Gov. Jesse Ventura (I-MN) as the most famous example. "I don't have the slightest question that it could happen on a national level."
Dr. Kenneth Palmer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Orono, notes that politics in Maine have traditionally been quite moderate. In the 1970s, the state elected an independent governor in James Longley. Its current US senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are both Republicans, yet often side with Democrats on a number of issues.
"Maine is not a state with much ideology," Palmer says. "We've got a rugged climate and a lot of small towns. The politicians that do well get to meet you, go door to door, show up in town halls, and work on problems one by one."
As a governor who enjoyed riding his motorcycle to "inspect Maine's roads," King added some pizzazz to state politics, Palmer says, and built coalitions with members of both parties in the legislature for various controversial issues, such as requiring all teachers be fingerprinted. Palmer says such collaboration still goes on with King's successor, John Baldacci (D).
Can an independent approach be successfully applied to national politics? That's a big question, but King notes that Ross Perot, despite his eccentricity, collected nearly 19% of the popular vote in 1992.
"Think back to 2004 and [how many] people you talked to who were unhappy with the choices they had," says King. "Assume for a moment you had [retired Gen.] Colin Powell and [former US Sen.] George Mitchell running. I don't think there's much question that they would have won.
"There are two options," King concludes. "It will either fizzle out or change American history."
Founding member, Unity08
Special counsel, law firm Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson; Lecturer, Bowdoin College
Governor of Maine
Pres., Northeast Energy Mngt.