In some countries, it seems political parties grow on trees-or, in Italy, grape vines maybe. Not so in America, where Democrats and Republicans have barricaded themselves in the compound, where they choose to bash it out between themselves.
But there have always been brave souls who, in the face of a massively stacked deck, set out on their own with a few fellow travelers to create one of America's "third" parties.
This fall, a few such renegades will try to lure Montanans' votes. Most would dismiss the efforts of the Natural Law Party's Dale Blackford, who's running for the state legislature, as well as congressional-wannabes Mike Fellows, a Libertarian, and Webb Sullivan, a Reform Party hopeful, as token lost causes.
Don't tell that to Blackford, though. "I'm in it to win," says Blackford, a local minister and legislative candidate on the Natural Law Party's ticket.
That's a tall order, but in the world of the Montana Legislature, where constituencies are small and voters obstreperous, stranger things have happened. Blackford, like most third-party hopefuls, is banking on voters' contempt for the ever-similar major parties to win him votes.
"A friend who was working with the Natural Law Party talked me into investigating the party and what it stood for," he says. "I'd been fairly cynical about the whole political process for some time simply because of the abuses that go on, but here I saw something that had the potential to offer an alternative."
The NLP's alternative is heavy on planks tailored for New Age America-transcendental meditation in prisons, charter schools, laissez-faire economics and preventative medicine. The party first appeared in the '96 general election, running enough strong candidates to qualify for the ballot this time around.
Statewide, six legislative candidates are running under the party's banner. Blackford, for his part, doesn't lean too heavily on the NLP platform, saying he'd rather be a force for positive change than a party-liner.
"I'm with the NLP because I intend to be a candidate who can be elected in the spirit of reform," he says. "I don't want to be a purveyor of special interests, even if they're Natural Law Party interests.
"I want to be someone who is open to and can suggest alternative solutions."
The notion of another way also appeals to a pair of outsider candidates running for Republican Rick Hill's seat in Congress: Libertarian Fellows and the Reform Party's Sullivan.
Fellows, a Missoula nursing-home worker, labor activist and public-access TV producer, sports a button summing up his almost-venerable party's stance. "The Libertarian Party," it reads. "Pro-Choice... on everything."
Libertarians dispute the notion, which they claim both major parties subscribe to, that government is the greatest good. The Democrats, Fellows says, are too keen on welfare, subsidies and taxation, while the Republicans constantly push restrictive social mores into politics.
"We call ourselves the party of principle," Fellows says. "We're the only party that is guided by a set of principles we won't deviate from for any reason.
"They're principles that we think most people can agree to if they're given the chance to hear about them."
Fellows, who-in an almost unheard move-is also running for a state legislative seat in Missoula, says Libertarians would leave that thinking in the dust.
"We need a small government that gets the job done, and leaves everything else up to individuals," he says. "The government doesn't have any business telling people what to do, whether it's what to do with their money or what to ingest into their bodies."
Beyond that anti-government philosophy, Fellows offers few specific ideas for action, saying he's concentrating on the campaign.
Meanwhile, it's hard to tell where Sullivan, running on the ticket of Ross Perot's Reform Party, is coming from at all. The World War II vet from Livingston is no stranger to longshot campaigns, having garnered a grand total of 22 votes statewide as a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1994.
Sullivan says he's involved in convoluted legal battles with railroads, the Federal Electoral Commission, the IRS and the Associated Press. While he claims to like Democratic candidate Dusty Deschamps, he jumped into the congressional race to get a platform for his self-proclaimed anti-corruption campaign.
On the phone from his home, Sullivan regales a reporter with lengthy readings from letters he's written to, among others, President Bill Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno, the U.S. Congress and the people of the United States. He also reads, in its entirety, a '40s newspaper clipping about his family's exploits in World War II.
"Whoever heard of a scrap you could keep a Sullivan out of?" he quotes. And while his campaign's objectives remain something of a mystery, Sullivan does espouse a line of political reasoning most third-party candidates-and plenty of others as well-could agree with.
"America is rapidly becoming a one-party country," he says. "The Democrats and Republicans are getting closer to each other all the time."