in Flint, Mich.-Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is a huge hit for ABC. Survivor was even bigger for CBS. And despite all the grumbling about tape delays and smallish audiences, the Olympics still drew tens of millions of eyeballs to NBC. But those entertainment extravaganzas are nothing compared to the spectacle of two middle-aged guys in suits arguing with each other from behind their lecterns. When the final numbers are in, experts believe more than 50 million Americans will have tuned in to watch the presidential debates scheduled for Oct. 3, 11, and 17. In a time of steadily eroding TV audiences, those are blockbuster numbers. But to listen to Ralph Nader tell it, the networks missed the programming opportunity of a lifetime: him. "If we were included in the debates, they could have 90 million people watching," he bragged last week in a campaign swing through Wisconsin and Michigan. Never mind that scores-even hundreds-of people ducked out early every time the Green Party candidate delivered one of his sonorous lectures. To hear him tell it, he was the savior of both the American political system and the network ratings game. For Mr. Nader and other independent candidates, Oct. 3 is a day that will live in infamy. Strapped for cash and starved for attention, what they most need is a forum that brings in millions of voters and costs them nothing. The presidential debates are the only events that fit that bill, but they're open only to candidates with 15 percent support in the polls. Mr. Nader and his fellow Don Quixotes of the third-party movement are nowhere near the magic number this year, so they won't be on the stage with the big boys-no matter how many viewers they might claim to attract. "In the absence of those [debates], I'm a realist," Pat Buchanan told WORLD, his voice trailing off at the thought of the grim reality. "If they deny us the oxygen we need to breathe, we're not going to win the race. But the losers will be not just this new party we're trying to build, but the American people. They will be cheated out of a legitimate choice in the November election, and they'll have two candidates who have become carbon copies of one another." No one would accuse the third-party candidates of being anything other than complete originals. They're a colorful lot who tend to go where few recent politicians have gone before. Howard Phillips and his Constitution Party state that "the U.S. Constitution established a republic under God, rather than a democracy." John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party would create a new government purportedly based on "unified quantum field theory." And Harry Browne of the Libertarian Party would downsize government so thoroughly that there would scarcely be any work left for him to do. Those candidates, and other independents from still more obscure parties, each register less than 1 percent in the polls, but their appeals are lively. Mr. Phillips says the religious right is backing George W. Bush "in return for a pre-paid ticket" on a GOP "ride down the slippery slope." He charges that conservative leaders "prostitute their principles shilling for Bush." Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Nader are the major players among the minor candidates, however. Though they languish below 5 percent in most polls, each has a decent chance of attracting millions of voters-given just the proper alignment of the political planets. The Nader campaign is cobbling together an odd coalition of aging hippies, disaffected students, and angry union workers. At a stop in Flint, Mich., the ornate Whiting Auditorium held a cross-section of 1,200 or so typical Nader supporters: kids with green hair and multiple piercings; earth mothers with long, straight hair and Birkenstocks; laid-off autoworkers in baseball caps embroidered with the name of their union local. In a gray suit and red tie, the candidate himself looked very much like the Harvard-educated lawyer that he is-and strangely out of place. Despite his sartorial misstep, the crowd was eager to welcome him as one of their own. Ever since his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed exposed Chevrolet's alleged disregard for consumer safety, Mr. Nader has been known as America's most outspoken critic of big business. That plays well in a city like Flint, where Buick, the biggest business in town, has shrunk its workforce from 40,000 to 17,000 in the past five years. Automakers, not surprisingly, were at the top of Mr. Nader's list of corporate villains. But they were hardly alone: In the course of his rambling, 45-minute stump speech, the candidate hammered insurance companies, defense contractors, agricultural conglomerates, drugmakers, chemical companies, and TV networks, to name just a few. Two months ago, such attacks were propelling Mr. Nader, but then Al Gore began courting the anti-corporate crowd. Ever since he brought the house down in L.A. with his line about "the people versus the powerful," the scion of Tennessee's most prominent political family has become a born-again populist. That clearly galls Mr. Nader, who blasts the vice president's "phony populism" and insists the Democratic Party is "utterly corrupted" by its dependence on corporate donations. He may have a point, but almost no one gets to hear it. With no money and no media "buzz," Mr. Nader has dropped in the polls from 8 percent to around 3 percent. He recognizes that he can't win, but says he's building the Green Party for the future. That means fighting his way back to 5 percent by Election Day in order to qualify the party for federal funds in 2004. Those funds can help the chances of a minor party. Just ask Pat Buchanan. After three presidential runs as a Republican, he jumped to the Reform Party last year, attracted by the $12.5 million in federal funds the party had earned based on Ross Perot's third-place finish in 1996. Other Reform Party factions also wanted the money, however, and they were willing to fight for it. After two conventions, multiple lawsuits, and an appeal to the Federal Election Commission, Mr. Buchanan finally got both the nomination and the money. But Mr. Perot's once-potent alliance of disaffected voters has been all but destroyed, and the party languishes at just over 1 percent in national polls. That doesn't seem to bother the new Reform front man, who had little in common with the old party, anyway. Instead of the good government issues championed by his predecessor, Mr. Buchanan is running a campaign based largely on three broad themes: America's moral decline, attacks on national sovereignty, and immigration. He pulls no punches in comments like, "We will restore sovereignty and put an end to this emerging snake called the New World Order. We will use American troops, if necessary, to defend the borders of the United States from a virtual invasion from the south." Mr. Buchanan has sued the presidential debate commission for the right to say that on national television, but acknowledges there's little chance he'll prevail. Still, like Mr. Nader, he says he's building his party for the future. "We may not succeed, but I believe that we need a new fighting, conservative, traditionalist party in America," he declared in a recent speech. "I hope that one day we can take America back. That is why we are building this Gideon's army and heading for Armageddon to do battle for the Lord." The fear among both the Bush and Gore camps is that for their man, Armageddon may come as soon as Nov. 7. In a race as close as this one-the latest Fox poll had it dead even at 43 percent each-minor parties can have a major impact. Thanks to the winner-take-all format of the Electoral College, third-party candidates could make the difference in several key swing states. On paper, Mr. Gore seems to have the most to fear. The Green Party's environmental platform has fervent support in important states like California, Oregon, and Washington, and Mr. Nader's anti-corporate message wins additional votes in crucial Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. In an extremely close election, Mr. Nader might siphon off just enough Gore supporters to tilt any of those states to the Republicans. The polls don't show that happening right now, but polls are a blunt instrument: The typical margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points-too broad to accurately measure the impact of a minor-party candidate. Both Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan say they're appealing to non-voters, those turned off by the two-party system. But there's scant evidence that their long-shot campaigns are bringing fresh blood into the game. In Flint, for instance, the moderator asked how many in the auditorium had not voted in 1996. In a crowd of 1,200, fewer than 100 hands went up. That's bad news for Mr. Gore, since the remaining 1,100 listeners almost certainly voted Democratic four years ago. Over the next month, minor party followers will be asking themselves whether it's worth trading a possibly worse situation over the next four years for a hopefully better situation thereafter. Minor party leaders will assert that Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore are almost identical: Howard Phillips asks, "Does anyone still believe that Republicans are more conservative than Democrats?" Whatever the outcome this year, Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan insist they'll be back in 2004. Third-party members see the tide moving their way, as more people are turned off by broken promises and partisanship. "You can only be let down so many times before you start to sink into a cynicism that's difficult to escape from," said one Nader supporter in Michigan. In a time of unprecedented prosperity, such cynicism is relatively rare. But in an economic downturn, the disillusionment with the major parties could grow. If so, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan will probably be there to stoke the flames of discontent. "We've found a new home," Mr. Buchanan says of his party. "We're not going back." Of course, if by luring conservative voters away from the GOP Mr. Buchanan hands victory to Mr. Gore, he won't exactly be welcome back.