RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And with the presidential race in its final weeks, there are a lot of factors that could affect the outcome. Among them, a great or terrible performance by one of the candidates in Monday's final debate, the October jobs report, and third party candidates who are on the ballot in almost every state. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Gary Johnson is the former two-term governor of New Mexico. He's running on the Libertarian ticket. He's on the ballot in 48 states. And if you go to his YouTube channel, you can see his campaign ads.

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GARY JOHNSON: If you'd rather rebuild roads, schools, bridges and hospitals here at home instead of building them for others halfway around the world, you're a libertarian. If you're the kind of person who talks about ending warfare and welfare in the same sentence, you're a libertarian. If you think your body, your love life and your private business are no business of the federal government, you're libertarian.

LIASSON: Johnson doesn't have much money, but he does have some experienced, unpaid help, including Roger Stone, the colorful Republican operative who, among other things, is famous for tattooing an image of Richard Nixon on his back.

Stone says calculating Johnson's potential impact on the 2012 race is not so simple.

ROGER STONE: This is a candidate who is opposed to the Afghanistan war, who wants to legalize marijuana, who wants to repeal the Patriot Act, so I think he appeals to certain left-of-center voters. But he's also someone who proposes balancing the federal budget now, who would do away with the Federal Reserve and wants to return us to a sound dollar, so he has appeal to certain right-of-center voters. So really, to answer to your question, Mara, is ask me the state and I'll tell you who I think he pulls from.

LIASSON: OK. How about Colorado - a battleground state with a Mountain West libertarian streak and maybe many young Ron Paul supporters?

STONE: Because Colorado has a marijuana initiative on the ballot and Governor Johnson has endorsed it and the president has had no comment, I think that he disproportionately probably pulls a few more votes in Colorado from the president.

LIASSON: But if Johnson could hurt President Obama in Colorado, in other battlegrounds, like Nevada and New Hampshire, Stone sees Johnson pulling votes away from Romney. This theory is utterly rejected by RNC chairman Reince Priebus in an interview on CNN.

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REINCE PRIEBUS: We don't have a third-party candidate that's anywhere near the name recognition or the popularity of Ross Perot or John Anderson. I just don't see that happening. In fact, I see that it's almost a non-factor.

LIASSON: To which Stone responds: Oh, really?

STONE: It just aggravates me, as a lifetime Republican, that the Republicans, on the one hand, the national chairman says Johnson's a non-factor, but the Republicans, in truth, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with paid lawyers and private investigators trying to bump Governor Johnson off the ballot in Ohio, in Virginia, in Iowa, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, in Oklahoma. What's wrong with an election?

LIASSON: Gary Johnson isn't the only third-party candidate with the potential to mess things up for the two major parties. In the battleground state of Virginia, former six-term congressman Virgil Goode is running on the anti-immigration Constitution Party ticket.

Although Goode is on the ballot in 26 states, Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth says he's really a local phenomenon.

BOB HOLSWORTH: And that phenomenon is that this is a person who's been in state politics in one way or another for over 30 years. He's very well-known and very well-liked in a small slice of the state. And that's the kind of state where, sort of, a rural Republican populism probably plays a lot better than the corporate Republicanism of Mitt Romney.

LIASSON: Goode is from southwestern Virginia - exactly where Romney needs a big vote total to offset the president's strength in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

HOLSWORTH: There is a real nightmare scenario for the Republicans associated with Goode's candidacy. Because no one expects Goode to get a lot of the vote, but in a race that could be razor tight here, if he gets one percent or two percent of the vote, most analysts, including myself, believe that the majority of that vote is going to come out of Mitt Romney. So there is that potential that Virgil Goode could be, in some ways, the Ralph Nader of 2012.

LIASSON: Republicans were hoping this presidential election would look like 1980, where Ronald Reagan - after a great debate performance - began to pull away from the unpopular incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Democrats were hoping the race would end up like 2004, where the incumbent, George W. Bush, developed a small but durable lead over his challenger, John Kerry.

But right now, this race is looking a lot like 2000, the nail-biter of a contest that went down to the wire and way beyond. And where Ralph Nader - with just 1 percent of the vote in Florida - made history.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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