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Meet Unity '08, a Net-powered third party that may actually work, says Fortune's Matt Miller.

By Matt Miller, Fortune columnist

(Fortune Magazine) -- Imagine it's March 2008, and Americans are grumbling (again) about having to pick a President from among lesser evils. John McCain has emerged with a lock on the Republican nomination, but he's pandered so much to the religious right on gay marriage and stem-cell research, and dug in so deeply on staying the course in Iraq, that he's lost his crossover appeal and turns off even the moderates in his party.

Hillary Clinton has likewise outpunched her Democratic foes, but the primaries have pushed her so far left that middle-of-the-road Democrats have a sick feeling about it all.

Now imagine that America's centrist majority has a way to fight back instead of simply griping that it's stuck with choices thrust upon it by 300,000 voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Allow me to introduce Unity '08 (www.unity08.com), a third-party movement that may actually work. I'm not talking about another Texas billionaire who says he can save us from our two-party duopoly, but an entirely new form of political self-help.

This time voters would use the Internet to draft nominees for a virtual convention in June, by which point Unity '08 will have gotten itself on the ballot in nearly every state. Names like Bloomberg, Gore, Giuliani, Obama and Romney will draw support from vastly more voters than Clinton and McCain may have tallied in America's low-turnout primaries.

To be eligible for nomination, the only condition these and other contenders must agree to is this: If they win, they will name a running mate from the other political party. The last act of the virtual convention will be to ask each of its ten million online delegates to kick in $100 for the campaign; if one in four comes through, this Unity ticket will emerge with a $250 million bankroll that will make it competitive in the closing months of the race.

Unity '08 is one of the most electorally subversive ideas in years. The brain behind it is Doug Bailey, a 73-year-old former Republican consultant, who left the game in the late 1980s before founding The Hotline, an online newsletter that has become the Beltway's political bible. Joined by former Jimmy Carter advisors Gerald Rafshoon and Hamilton Jordan, Bailey launched Unity '08 to steer politics back to the underrepresented center.

What makes this third-party effort different - and plausible - is its use of the Internet, the political potential of which, Bailey believes, has barely been tapped. Yes, Howard Dean showed last time that the Internet could supercharge small-donor fundraising to make a long shot credible. But that was "incremental," Bailey says. Now, via something like the above scenario, he is convinced that "with one good push we can change the nature of our politics."

The idea behind Unity '08 isn't just to democratize the selection of candidates; it's about changing what they talk about too. One of the most frustrating things about campaigns today is that the candidates control the agenda - they only discuss what they feel will help them win. Unity '08's philosophy is that voters should set the agenda. Its citizen delegates, who have just started signing up online, will be polled on their priorities; candidates will then be required to speak to the resulting short list of big issues. That, Bailey predicts, will drive the debate toward "critical" questions (e.g., health care, education, national security) and away from merely "important" ones (abortion, gay marriage) that both parties use to inflame their bases.

If, like me, you've been vulnerable to third-party temptation, the open question is whether Unity '08 can get traction with potential candidates, who would climb aboard - and anger their parties - only if the Unity ticket seemed a credible path to power.

Obstacles abound. The Federal Elections Commission has ruled that donors can give Unity '08 just $5,000 a year (vs. $25,000 for the major parties), on the grounds that it's a "political committee." Another challenge: online voting needs to be made trustworthy. And another: Democratic bloodlust may overwhelm any third-party movement. Still, Unity '08's growing advisory council already includes serious folks like Pete Peterson, Jack Valenti, William Weld and Peter Ackerman of Rockport Capital.

If you agree that our brain-dead politics needs an overhaul, it's your civic duty to check it out.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of "The 2% Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love." He can be reached at mattino@att.net. ___________________

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.