New challenge to Obama: a White House rival from outside the box

Online group asks US voters to pick centrist presidential hopeful to break two-party system

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While all eyes ahead of the presidential race are on the Republicans and Barack Obama, the Democrat incumbent, a new group is asking voters to bypass both parties and pick a third, centrist candidate over the internet.

Americans Elect could potentially scramble the calculations of both parties just as the starting pistol on next year's contest is about to be fired.

It is the latest iteration of the frustration with Washington's partisan atmosphere and the ensuing policymaking paralysis underscored this week with the failure of debt-reduction talks.

There has been talk of a third candidate for months. A group called No Labels emerged last year with backing from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor and aiming to force Washington to ditch its partisan ways.

Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, recently began a campaign for a freeze on donations to the two main parties, claiming neither was working for the good of the country.

But Americans Elect, co-founded and partly bankrolled by Peter Ackerman, an ex-associate of the junk-bond buccaneer Michael Milken, has more developed plans.

It wants to register millions of voters on its website and next spring will launch a process of online voting to choose a nominee, hopefully from the political middle. That candidate will begin his or her campaign in June.

Americans Elect has already secured ballot access in nine states, including Florida, Nevada, Michigan and Ohio.

It means to have slots for its candidate in every state by next summer.

The history of third-party White House bids is not encouraging. Ross Perot was deemed to have done well in 1992 with about a fifth of the vote.

John Anderson won just seven per cent in 1980. Yet in both years the incumbent president – Jimmy Carter and George Bush Snr – lost.

Americans Elect, which on its website declares, "one year to pick a president, not a party", says it is not interested in becoming a party.

Nor is it seeking to target the established parties. If online voters pick someone outside the centrist profile the group founders want, they can veto that choice in favour of someone else.

"I'm for anything that disrupts the system," Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to George W Bush and now advising the group, told the Los Angeles Times. "What we've got now clearly isn't working." Names in the frame include Mr Bloomberg; Jon Huntsman, the moderate among current Republican runners; and the former Indiana senator Evan Bayh.

Critics say that to assume there is a gap for a centrist candidate is flawed because Mr Obama is a centrist, at least in the eyes of liberal Democrats who consider him a traitor to the left. They also say Americans Elect lacks credibility because, unlike the Tea Party, it is the creation of wealthy technocrats rather than grassroots activists .

"What we have here is secret money bankrolling a process that in the end is controlled by a select group of insiders, not by ordinary voters," said David Callahan, of the Washington-based policy advocacy group Demos.

"How is that an improvement over the 'politics as usual' that Americans Elect says it wants to displace?"

A Third Way: Names In The Frame

Michael Bloomberg

The New York Mayor wants to force Washington to abandon its partisan ways. An attack on Obama's leadership skills this week fuelled speculation that he could mount a third-party bid for the White House.

Jon Huntsman

The former Utah governor joined the race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination with a slightly awkward entry on his CV: he worked for the Democrats as an ambassador to China under Obama. This does, however, give him centrist credentials.

Howard Schultz

The Starbucks chief has launched a campaign for a freeze on donations to the two big parties because, he said, neither was working for the good of the country. He has denied any plans to run for office.

Evan Bayh

The former Democratic senator – once talked about as a possible running mate to Obama – resigned from Congress last year, blaming Washington's polarised politics

Time to ruffle some feathers

Mitt Romney may be the Republican front-runner, but one man believes he can make him even more appealing to voters: his frustrated hairdresser. In an interview with The New York Times, the candidate's barber of two decades, Leon de Magistris, has ruefully explained that if he had his way, Mr Romney would ditch his eerily perfect look. "I will tell him to mess it up a little bit," said Mr De Magistris, 69. "I said to him, 'Let it be more natural.'"

Sadly, "he wants a look that is very controlled," Mr De Magistris said. "He is a very controlled man."