As George W. Bush and Al Gore focus on the issues of Social Security and education, third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Patrick J. Buchanan have staked out ground largely abandoned by the two major candidates.
Nader, the Green Party candidate, is talking about universal health care and corporate influence in government. Buchanan, the Reform Party nominee, is focused on abortion, immigration and global trade.
"Their appeal to voters is not that they're likely to win so much as it is an issue appeal, a notion that this issue is ignored by the major parties or the major parties aren't committed to it," said William G. Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University who has written about third parties.
Though most polls show Buchanan drawing less than 1 percent of the vote, Nader has garnered nearly 5 percent, a healthy performance in historical terms, Mayer said.
"If you look at the best third-party showing in each election going back 70 years, they typically do no better than 2 percent of the vote, so for a third party candidate to be pulling 5 ... is doing pretty well," he said.
There have, of course, been exceptions. In 1992, Ross Perot captured just under 19 percent of the votes. In 1968, George C. Wallace got almost 14 percent.
For Nader, 66, a consumer activist who calls himself ideologically progressive, the race is less about winning this election than building a watchdog party that will eat away at the two-party system, which he calls corrupt for its fund-raising excesses.
If he gets more than 5 percent of the vote, the party will be eligible for $12 million in federal election funds in 2004.
By threatening to capture many voters who might otherwise vote Democratic, he's angering the party faithful. Critics say he's on an ego trip and misleading voters by insisting there's no real difference between the two major party candidates.
Nader reasons that a Bush victory would galvanize the progressive movement.
On the stump, Nader is calling for a single, comprehensive health plan for all Americans to replace the current system, which he says favors insurance companies and is driven by greed. He assails "corporate welfare" and "corporate compensations," saying that big business doesn't need government help. He wants to abolish the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and says he'll fight to reduce pollution and promote the use of solar energy.
If elected, Nader says, he would work to end the death penalty and promote abortion rights and equal rights for gays and lesbians. Campaign finance reform, he says, should include a ban on soft-money contributions to political parties and a voluntary system of public financing for all federal elections.
"We're the only clean campaign in this election," said Laura Jones, deputy press secretary for Nader. "We don't accept PAC money or corporate money or soft money. We are walking our talk."
Buchanan, 61, has led a fractured Reform Party in the campaign, and his time on the trail has been reduced by health problems.
A former newspaper columnist, television commentator and aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, Buchanan is a well-known conservative figure who promotes "America first" themes.
Arguing that the interests of American workers take precedence over trade deals, Buchanan would expel the United Nations from the country, increase import tariffs and eliminate the World Trade Organization.
He condemns what he calls the de-Christianization of America and the acceptance of homosexuality, saying that a loose coalition of elites - including Supreme Court justices, Northeastern universities and entertainment executives - is dismantling America.
If elected, Buchanan has promised, he will bring home U.S. troops from Europe and the Middle East and station them at the Mexican border to protect the country from illegal immigration.
In television ads, he calls for a return to prayer in schools, showing a teacher pulling apart the hands of a schoolgirl praying at her desk and a tablet of the Ten Commandments being ripped from a wall.
Buchanan has vowed to support legislation ending abortion and name to the Supreme Court only justices who favor overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
His administration would work to ban soft-money contributions, outlaw the use of union dues for political campaigns, require disclosure of all contributions within 48 hours, increase individual donor limits to $3,000 and index them to inflation.
Buchanan tried to accomplish on the right what Nader has done on the left, Mayer said - appeal to those who believe the Republican Party has moved too far to the center - but has been less successful than Nader, partly because conservatives were more reluctant to squander their votes on a third party and allow the continuation of the Clinton-Gore administration.
"And Buchanan in the last eight years has had this strange collection of views, anti-abortion, protectionist on trade, isolationist on foreign policy," he said. "It's a quite coherent world view for him, but there aren't a lot of Americans, I suspect, who share that cluster of views."