Nonpartisan group offers US political alternative

WASHINGTON Wed Nov 2, 2011 6:06pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A nonpartisan group said on Wednesday it has gathered millions of signatures, and millions of dollars, from voters so unhappy with the toxic U.S. political climate that they want a centrist independent to run for president in 2012.

The group, Americans Elect, is creating an Internet-based third party in which registered voters will choose someone to run against the Republican nominee and Barack Obama when the Democratic president vies for re-election next year.

So far, Americans Elect has gathered more than 1.9 million signatures in support of its petition to get on the ballot in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and raised almost $22 million.

"There is a huge receptivity across the board to an independent candidate," Douglas Schoen, Americans Elect's chief strategist, a former adviser to politicians including President Bill Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, told a news conference.

With polls showing that 80 percent of Americans are unhappy with how the country is being governed, there has been a growing support for an alternative to politicians from the two major parties who seem unable to work together.

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Backers of the idea have expressed support for everyone from Bloomberg, a former Republican who is now an independent, to Howard Schultz, the chief executive of coffee firm Starbucks, as possible third-party candidates.

Americans Elect was founded by the wealthy investor Peter Ackerman. It officers include political veterans from both parties who say they are tired of the current poisonous divide between U.S. Democrats and Republicans.

Americans Elect insists its goal is not to defeat any particular candidate. But, citing Herman Cain's low-budget campaign and strong showing in the Republican primary field, they say they believe their candidate could win a significant share of the 2012 vote.

That could be bad news for Obama. The only two incumbent presidents who have failed to be re-elected in the past 32 years were Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican George H.W. Bush, both when third-party candidates won significant votes.

Americans Elect is using the Internet to run a "virtual" direct primary, in which any American who is registered to vote can help select its presidential candidate.

Americans Elect has qualified to have its candidate on the ballot in seven states and is awaiting word on its petitions to do so in four others, while collecting signatures in 13 more. The rest will come in 2012.

The group has set itself up as a non-profit, which does not have to release the names of its donors. Campaign finance activists say the group is violating the tax code and have filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service.

"A political party is not entitled to be treated as a 'social welfare' organization under federal tax laws and is required to disclose its donors. Period," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance watchdog Democracy 21.

Americans Elect's leaders say they are merely offering voters an alternative to the current two-party system, not backing a particular political agenda.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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