"This has been a train wreck. I've been giving this same speech all day."

So explains the profusely apologetic voice on the other end of my cell phone, explaining how a credentialing screw-up by the Commission on Presidential Debates' media staff means I won't be allowed into the Bush-Kerry debate Sept. 30, despite the fact that I just drove four and a half hours to get to Miami from Orlando.

So I'm a little pissed off. For the last week, I've talked and e-mailed with CPD staffers, who assured me and reassured me that, thanks to the recent hurricanes, media credentials were being done on site. In other words, show up, present your ID, let the Secret Service run a background check and you're in, along with about 1,500 other members of the media crammed into a wellness center not far from the University of Miami convention center where the debate will be held.

On Sept. 30, I drove down, pausing once on the Florida Turnpike when I saw a WDBO 580-AM van being towed out of some bushes on the side of the road (reporter Mike Synan wasn't hurt). After reaching the campus, I stumbled around for a half-hour trying to find Founders Hall, where the media creds were (not) being given out.

As I was entering, I brushed past an exiting Ralph Nader, who was speaking in Lebanese (I think) to a compatriot, no doubt discussing how best to install George W. Bush in the White House for another four years.

It was a crushing disappointment to pass so close to Nader because in November 2003, I promised in print to mush a pie in Ralph's face if he insisted on getting into the race again. There he was, in the race, and there I was, sans pie. Note to self: Henceforth, always carry a pie.

Disappointment No. 2 came when I realized I'd been lied to. The CPD wasn't issuing credentials on site anymore, because it took the Secret Service too long to run background checks. And my repeated pleas of "I just drove six hours" – slight exaggeration for effect, these people don't know Florida geography – "and you're telling me I can't get in!" were met with a resolute, if apologetic, "There's nothing I can do."

Probably because they have me pegged for the kind of guy who would throw a pie at a candidate, i.e., a terrorist.

Resolute in my determination to make lemonade (but not lemon meringue, dammit) out of lemons, I trekked to the Holiday Inn to queue up for the Council for Democracy's third-party candidate debate. If nothing else, I might get another shot at Ralph Nader. Had he bothered to show up, that is.

That's right: Nader, the scourge of two-party democracy, the man who would single-handedly return America to Americans, the savior who would deliver us from Enron, couldn't be bothered to share the limelight with the other third-party no-names. How's that for progressive values? I'd like to quote my colleague, Jessica Young, who so succinctly noted in last week's paper that anyone who would vote for Nader is a "winsomely idealistic yet misguided fuckwit."

Instead of a pastry/Nader interface, I got to sit through 90 minutes of the Libertarian and Green Party candidates not only making their case for their policies, but also trying to spin the ridiculous notion that a third-party vote in 2004 isn't a shameful waste.

And despite my almost overwhelming desire not to care, I actually found myself heartened that this sparsely attended forum – maybe 75 people in the Holiday Inn ballroom – was truly, honestly substantive. Without Chris Matthews there to dissect every slip of the tongue, without a Fox News anchorman looking for a reason to declare George W. Bush The One Supreme Ruler and be done with this whole democracy sham, all that was left was a conversation about a wide range of issues. Some of it was wacky, but it felt real.

Where else would you get to hear a presidential candidate say, "As long as I can get my finger on the trigger, the government will never get my guns!" as Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik declared to the wild applause of 40 followers?

Green Party candidate David Cobb had this bit of straightforward advice for America: "We should stop breeding `terrorism` by getting the hell out of Iraq." You hear that, John Kerry?

Badnarik and Cobb found consensus on many issues: The two-party system is bad; the USA PATRIOT Act is bad; the drug war is bad; separation of church and state is good. They also had a few disagreements: Badnarik railed against the 17th Amendment, which allows the direct election of senators. Cobb railed against corporate America. Cobb kvetched about the Kyoto accords and other multinational treaties Bush has ignored; Badnarik insisted such treaties were unconstitutional. Cobb argued for universal health care, and insisted that Social Security was a success. Badnarik said education should be privatized.

And they took unscreened questions from the audience – a refreshing show of democracy in action that touched on topics you certainly didn't hear broached across the street. For instance, a Libertarian berated Cobb on gun control, asking the candidate who decrees what constitutes a "rational" gun-control policy. Cobb said, duh, the American people get to make that call.

"I don't think you answered the question," the man responded.

"I don't think you understood the answer," a distinctly pissy Cobb shot back.

Another Libertarian, citing the Federalist papers, argued that direct democracy wasn't always a good thing, and that the founding fathers distrusted the idea. Cobb aptly noted that the founding fathers didn't like women or blacks either, and suggested that maybe their writings shouldn't be treated as gospel.

Cobb also put in a plug for apologizing and paying financial reparations to Iraq. Badnarik wasn't so keen on the reparations part.

And so it went, a spirited civics lesson indeed. But despite their insistence to the contrary, I couldn't shake the sense that this was an exercise in futility. Neither of these men will ever be president, and neither of them will even affect this year's election. You can talk all you want about party-building – which both parties are doing admirably – and you can legitimately discuss real issues until you're blue in the face – as opposed to the Vietnam record (or lack thereof) of your opponent – but it was hard to leave without shouting "Who cares?"

But leave I did, and a few margaritas later I found myself at a Coconut Grove bar called Fat Tuesday watching the main event. It was college night, but the bartenders were kind enough to put the debate on the TVs anyway, though I couldn't hear anything over the thumping bass of bad music (thank you, closed captioning for the hearing impaired).

I chatted with two guys, Gary and Chris, who were drinking and watching the debate with me. Chris was already on board the Kerry boat; Gary was leaning toward Shrub. When I left at midnight, I was encouraged: After 90 minutes of Bush making an ass of himself, Gary declared there was no way the President was getting his vote. One Bush voter down, 48 million to go.



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