ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, Maryland -- Into the great amphitheatre of democracy wander 46 voters. There's a table set up on the stage below us and a rostrum for a moderator, and some handbills and bumper stickers have been laid out in the lobby. This is where the candidates' debate is going to take place on a weekday night in the deep suburbia of Washington-Baltimore.
This forum is not one of those Obama-Romney or Ryan-Biden bouts of belligerent air-bending and smirking condescension. It's three guys running for a chair in the much-despised, do-nothing United States Congress, two of whom have absolutely no chance of winning a week from Tuesday. Still, we 46, plus the millions beyond, are given a choice, which at least puts us ahead of North Korea.
Outside, under half a balmy moon, one of the certain losers is pacing the commons of Anne Arundel Community College and trying to conjure what, if anything, he is going to say in the auditorium when his turn comes. He is a vowel-deficient, long, long, long shot named Paul Drgos, nominee of the Libertarian Party for a seat in the House of Representatives from the Third District of the State of Maryland, part of which lies in the county named for the late Lady Arundel, an English Catholic noblewoman who was only 13 when she married the "Absolute Lord of Maryland and Avalon" in the year 1618.
"I'm not a very good public speaker," the candidate confesses.
"Why are you doing this?" I ask Drgos, who is a divorced father of four, a computer programmer by trade, and a man with enough good sense not to quit his day job before the election returns bury him alive.
"I don't like the way the government is going," he replies. "I don't like the two-party system."
Drgos tells me his own third party is ready to embrace "anyone from anarchists to more sensible people who believe in less government, not no government." He estimates he has spent $750 on his campaign so far, including the $100 filing fee, and that a total of two supporters have gone to his website and donated 10 bucks each.
While we are chatting, the Libertarian and I are joined by a younger fellow in a dark suit and an electric turquoise shirt who turns out to be Eric D. Knowles, the Republican rival of Drgos and of our once-and-future incumbent Democratic congressman, John Peter Spyros Sarbanes, the fortunate son of a five-term U.S. senator and himself a Harvard Law School grad who has been in the House since 2007, garnering at least 60 per cent of the popular vote each time he has stood for election. (Like nearly every other congressional riding in the country, the Maryland Third has been so cynically gerrymandered by the state legislature that no Democrat ever will lose it.)
"What does the 'D' stand for?" I ask Eric D. Knowles, the son of a Vietnam-era U.S. Army Green Beret and himself the divorced father of a 10-year-old girl and a former air force heating and refrigeration technician who ran (unsuccessfully) for the governorship of Maryland two years ago while he still was a student right here at Anne Arundel Community College.
"It's 'Delano,' " he admits. "My mother gave it to me and I hate it."
Unlike Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eric Delano Knowles does not believe the federal government should be the source and redistributor of the people's hard-earned wealth. In fact, at an earlier all-candidates forum, he listed FDR as one of the three worst presidents in American history, along with Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln.
"We need congressmen in there that are not part of the establishment," Knowles tells me. "They should come from the people and return to the people." The candidate's own plebian credentials are impeccable. A former camp counsellor and self-described "countertop measurer," he currently works as the bartender at the upscale Chop House in historic Annapolis.
"I have to put food on the table," the aspirant explains.
"He has a very strong viewpoint, not so much a Republican as a constitutionalist," Drgos says when Knowles walks away. "But I'm not sure he has a full grasp of what the constitution really says. He's a very personable guy. To be a bartender, you've got to be."
Now we all go inside and the candidates take their seats and, in a nice theatrical flourish, the Republican publican Knowles hands congressman Sarbanes a paper bag with an American flag design on the outside and a copy of the United States Constitution inside.
"The best thing the government can do is get out of the way," Drgos says as the debate begins.
"There's never been a time when raising taxes has brought more revenue to the government," says Knowles. And so it goes.
Next week, more than 100 million American citizens -- nearly two million of whom, according to the well-respected Pew Center on the States, are already dead but remain on the electoral rolls -- will pull a plunger or punch a chad or finger a touch-screen to choose a president, a senate, governors and dogcatchers, judges and county clerks.
In my own house, my wife and I are going to have to pass judgment not only on Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but on same-sex marriage, an expansion of casino gambling, university tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants, collective-bargaining rights for our county police, hiring preference for the severely disabled in county employment, and the composition of our local board of education.
Then we will have to select either Drgos, Knowles or Sarbanes to speak for us in nearby Washington.
Back at Anne Arundel, I ask Drgos what has been the highlight of his doomed and quixotic campaign, the sort of enterprise that, if abandoned, would leave us with no democracy at all.
"It's something small and simple," he replies, "but it meant the world to me. My daughter went with me to a festival downtown to hand out flyers. I got to hear her say to people, 'Please vote for my Daddy.' "
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.