Despite infighting, low visibility and lack of funding, third parties say they plan on running a record number of candidates in the November elections – and while they bear no illusions about winning the more high-profile races, don’t be surprised if they act as spoilers in the closer ones.

Take Tuesday’s 7th District congressional primary in Georgia. The national Libertarian Party, which is fielding more than 1,500 candidates across the country, is putting a load of money into ads that bash Rep. Bob Barr’s record on illegal drugs.

The four-term Republican is running neck and neck with five-term Republican Rep. John Linder for the party nomination, and Libertarians hope to oust the former because he supports the war on drugs.

"We’re hoping to have a lot of impact," said Libertarian spokesman George Getz, who added that the party has run at least 1,000 30-second television ads encouraging voters to bar Barr from another year in office. "If we can at least bump out Barr we can send a message."

Aside from being spoilers, the Libertarians are running 24 gubernatorial candidates, 220 candidates for House and 20 for Senate. Like other third party players, they sense there is still a need for options and believe the American electorate is ripe for political alternatives.

"I don’t see any waning of interest," said Getz, noting that the party now boasts 225,000 registered members, plus supporters who don’t live in the 34 states that allow voters to register with a party. "We have more candidates than ever and most of them wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t support for them out there."

But some observers say third parties have a long way to go toward garnering the fervent interest generated by independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, who many credit for helping to elect Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992 by taking fiscally conservative and moderate votes away from President George H.W. Bush.

But thanks in part to Perot’s crumbling credibility, he did not do as well in 1996 and his Reform Party has since deteriorated due to infighting based on seemingly irreconcilable ideological differences.

"Basically, the Reform Party, since its inception, has been a cauldron of chaos and infighting," said Dan Charles, former treasurer of the national party, who in April led a defection and is now the chair of the America First Party.

The new party, led by the faction that backed Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan against more moderate party hopefuls in 2000, is fielding eight candidates in November, including Rep. James Traficant, I-Ohio, who is currently jailed on corruption charges but who vows to be re-elected.

Charles said that despite the highly publicized Reform Party fist fights and failures, the new party is more resolved than ever to become a viable third way based on less government, pro-life tenets. And they say they are already seeing success.

"Quite frankly, what we’re hearing is, ‘I’m so sorry I voted for Gore,’ or ‘I’m so sorry I voted for Bush. I wasted my vote because it doesn’t matter which one is in charge,’" he said. "More and more people are realizing there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats."

John Samples, a political analyst for the Cato Institute, says the number of voters who are willing to affiliate themselves with a political party has dropped noticeably over the last 30 years and the latest figures show that at least one-third of the electorate considers themselves independent voters.

But like others, he admits that third parties continue to face mountainous challenges in a system skewed in favor of the two major political forces. "The system is so heavy against third parties that it is difficult for them to sustain any real success," he said, noting that these midterm elections will prove to be particularly hard.

"Things have changed quite a bit. I do think that September 11 has changed many things and that one of them is that the sense of anger against the system is much harder to mobilize right now," he added.

Russ Verney, one of Perot’s earliest supporters and confidants who has since left the Reform Party, said he has little hope that third parties can overcome these obstacles anytime soon.

"Overall, I see no impact of third parties in the midterm elections and looking forward to 2004, no impact on the presidential elections either," said Verney, noting that despite their efforts, Buchanan, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Libertarian candidate Harry Browne failed to earn five percent of the votes collectively in the 2000 presidential race.

Dean Myerson, spokesman of the left-leaning Green Party, which is fielding 440 candidates nationwide this year, blames the huge amount of money required, as well as a disinterested media, and bureaucratic obstacles for keeping third parties off state ballots.

He said his party, which has about 250,000 registered voters and 152 people currently holding office, is not about "spoiling races," but fixing the system so that third parties can have greater access.

"(Republicans and Democrats) have basically turned their elected positions into fiefdoms," he said. "We think the number of independent voters is increasing because of it. But it will take time."