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On the Fringe 

Not quite a Democrat and certainly not a Republican, the independent candidate is on the scene in Louisiana. But is anyone listening?

On a shoestring budget and running for governor? Anthony Gentile, also known as "Tony G" to his buddies, endorses the Internet. He practically announced his candidacy for governor online and is running advertisements on popular Web sites. He also posts messages on Louisiana-based forums almost daily hoping to engage voters.

The Internet, however, is an anonymous home to all sorts of characters, from raunchy to righteous. Gentile, a Mandeville native, learned that the hard way. When he criticized Congressman Bobby Jindal earlier this month on the PoliticsLa.com forum, several responses were downright wicked. Gentile wrote that Jindal should worry more about his congressional district than running for governor, a claim the freshman congressman hasn't exactly denied.

One poster to the forum, who chose the curious handle of "Earth_to_Tony," responded with a bit of advice: "Campaigning against a congressman is a waste of time. Adjust your tinfoil hat and focus."

Over time, Gentile says his political skin has thickened. That's a good thing, because it's unbearably tough to be an independent candidate in Louisiana. Unless you have a high profile, media attention is tough to come by -- and there's no cash coming from a national party.

Despite the challenges, independent candidates are showing up on Louisiana ballots with increasing frequency. A review of congressional races dating back more than 20 years shows the trend clearly. Only two candidates identified as "other" ran for congressional seats in 1984, but by 2002, at least one independent candidate ran in each district. This year, only two Louisiana districts won't have an independent challenger.

Much of this growth can be attributed to the Louisiana Libertarian Party, which has cobbled together a rudimentary organizational structure. It now has candidates in all the major races and roughly 1,600 members statewide. The Legislature has granted it minor party status on state ballots. This fall will mark the first time in modern elections that Louisiana will print party affiliations other than Republican, Democrat or Independent -- the latter has always been a catch-all, and not really a party.

The special status for Libertarians is fleeting, however. If the party wants permanent recognition, a Libertarian candidate will have to carry roughly 5 percent of the vote in one of the upcoming statewide elections for secretary of state or insurance commissioner. That is no easy task. In the past six years, most independent candidates were lucky to get 1 percent in statewide elections. One recent exception is Scott Lewis, who captured 5 percent in a three-person field for secretary of state in 2003.

James Lee Blake Jr., a Franklin native running on the Libertarian ticket in the Third Congressional District, says voters could be ready to turn the tide. Much still depends on exposure, though, which is unpredictable. Blake says it's a "coin toss" whether he'll receive decent press coverage in his own race. "I just hope they're all positive," he says. "But I really don't know."

Gregory "Rhumbline" Kahn, a candidate in New Orleans' Second Congressional District, says Libertarians are "ignored to a considerable degree" by the media, but only because campaign accounts are always limited -- or don't exist at all. He is treasurer of the state party and says candidates usually know better than to look nationally for donations.

Kahn says he personally has upwards of $100,000 in savings and may decide to use it. "I may try to raise some more money, but I'm leaning against it," Kahn says. "I don't want to run a conventional campaign. And I may not spend any money at all. It all depends how things play out."

Joshua P. Stockley, president of the Louisiana Political Science Association and professor of government at Nicholls State University, says the state's unique open-primary system should encourage more independent candidates to run, but that hasn't happened. Marketable candidates rarely step up and, as a result, Louisiana voters haven't developed a comfort level with independents.

When asked about his chances in the 2007 governor's race, Gentile gives a nod to political realties and handicaps it at "10-to-1 odds." Blake is withholding predictions, while Kahn gives himself a "2 percent chance of winning" -- still slim odds, he laughs. The opportunity to change attitudes about independent candidates is more important, he says.

"The biggest obstacle you have is that people only see the two big parties," Khan says. "I happen to think they're one big party. One big party, both of them, you get the same result. It's hard for people to break the mold. No one wants to do it."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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