In their vice-presidential debate Thursday night, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Delaware Senator Joe Biden ended in a veritable draw, not unlike Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama in their first presidential debate.
But what if there were a third (and fourth) candidate on the debate stage? What might he or she add to the discussion?
Former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President and Ralph Nader running-mate Matt Gonzalez said third party candidates would offer Americans more of a "clash of ideas."
"Given the incredible economic time that we're in," said Gonzalez, allowing third party candidates in the debate "would be just a greater call for more ideas."
Nader and Gonzalez, who spent last weekend stumping in Southern California, spoke at a University of California, San Diego rally about the "restrictive, and undemocratic Commission on Presidential Debates" (CPD).
The Nader/Gonzalez ticket, which expects to be on the ballot in 45 states in November, is hovering around 3 to 4 percent in some states in the latest CNN/Time Magazine poll. The low poll numbers bar them from a spot in the CPD-run televised debates.
"I like to remind people that it's a position that's not unequal to these other candidates in terms of giving me enough legitimacy to debate them," said the attorney and former public defender. "The budget of San Francisco alone exceeds, nearly doubles that of Alaska and Delaware.
"Nader and I both have enough legitimacy that there's not a credible argument for why we can't discuss the issues," Gonzalez said.
The CPD limits televised debates to candidates who meet constitutional requirements like age and citizenship, are on enough state ballots to ensure that, mathematically, they could get enough electoral college votes to win the presidency, and who meet a threshold of 15 percent across five national polls. The latter requirement is where the controversy lies.
"We're going at 5, 6, 7, 8 percent in various states according to some CNN polls," said consumer advocate Ralph Nader. "Those are millions of potential voters," Nader said, later adding, "we weren't dropped into this campaign from a UFO."
The nonprofit, nonpartisan CPD was founded in 1987, has produced and sponsored all of the official presidential and vice-presidential debates since then, and to this day is chaired by its co-founders, Former Republican Party Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and Former Democratic Party Chairman Paul G. Kirk, Jr.
In the CPD's 21-year history there was one election cycle where a third-party presidential candidate took the stage in a debate. In 1992 businessman and Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote in the election that year, debated George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In 1996 Perot was not allowed on the stage again.
The argument by third-party candidates like Nader as well Green Party and Libertarian candidates Cynthia McKinney and Bob Barr is that the CPD has created a two-party monopoly on televised presidential debates.
Gonzalez, who says he went from 6 percent to 47 percent in the polls after entering a televised debate against Gavin Newsom for Mayor of San Francisco in 2003, adds that the televised debates offer the very visibility that candidates need to increase their poll numbers.
"You can't, on the one hand, dismiss candidates who aren't let into debates and sort of say 'well you're not a serious candidate because your numbers aren't high enough,'" Gonzalez said. "McCain and Obama both had weak numbers until they were allowed into televised debates during the primaries."
Nader and Gonzalez say that the solution is to by-pass the organization altogether with television networks and citizen groups holding their own debates.
"The debate commission is like a fortress, a private corporation. We've sued it, picketed it, challenged it. It can't be moved as long as the three networks provide it with a monopoly," Nader said. "As long as the networks are their funnel, they get away with it."
With two debates to go and no other voices on the stage, Nader and Gonzalez argue that it is useless to discuss winners or losers because the Democratic and Republican messages are essentially the same.
For the first presidential debate between Sens. McCain and Obama, Nader emphasizes that we should focus on what won the debate, not who.
"Militarism won the debate. The $10 billion boondoggle Star Wars program won the debate. Nuclear power won the debate. The military-industrial complex won the debate. The blank check $700 billion bailout of Wall Street won the debate," Nader said.
With that argument, it will be interesting to see what wins in November.