CHICAGO—The Free & Equal debate that featured the four primary third party candidates at Hilton Chicago last night wasn’t pretty but it sure as hell was more interesting than the three official presidential debates between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, the only candidates present at the debate that are on the ballot in enough states to actually win enough electoral votes were the primary attractions and they frequently sparred but without calling each other out.

Johnson, a former New Mexico governor and Stein, a frequent candidate for public office in Massachusetts, agreed frequently on things like the war on drugs and reducing the size of America’s but differed immensely on public education.

While Johnson explained how federal subsidization of student loans has enabled the soaring costs of higher education, Stein countered that a college degree should be free to all who seek it.

“I think it is time to make public higher education free,” Stein said, noting that it has happened before in America with the G.I. Bill.

“Throughout the 20th century we provided a high school education for free to our younger generation. Why? Because it was essential for economic security and we owed it to our younger generation to give them a secure start in their economic lives. In the 21st century, a high school degree won’t cut it. You need a college degree in order to have economic security so it’s only right that we should now be providing that for free,” Stein said.

Virgil Goode, a former Virginia congressman and current presidential nominee of the Constitution Party, added that the country simply cannot affort to give more Pell grants and guaranteed student loans.

Like Johnson, Goode is jockeying for the coveted Ron Paul vote. Goode attracts the paleoconservative wing of the Paul vote but his support for the war on drugs could be a major deal breaker. 

There was a sizable Ron Paul presence in the debate hall and they expressed their displeasure with Goode when he voiced his opposition to legalizing drugs.

“Let’s be clear about my position on this: unlike Gary, unlike Rocky, and unlike Jill I am not for legalizing drugs. If you want that don’t vote for me,” he said.

When Johnson expressed his support for legalizing marijuana he drew thunderous applause from the crowd.

“I’ve drank alcohol, I’ve smoked marijuana. I don’t drink alcohol now, I don’t smoke marijuana but I can tell you categorically in no category is marijuana more dangerous than alcohol, and yet we are arresting 1.8 million people a year in this country on drug-related crime, we have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, 2.3 million people, half of what we spend on law enforcement and the courts is drug related, and to what end?” Johnson said.

Goode is on the ballot in approximately 29 states. 

Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson, the former mayor of Salt Lake City, aligned with Stein for much of the night and frequently with a more populist tone.

“We are on the road to totalitarianism," Anderson said when talking about the National Defense Authorization Act.

Anderson is on the ballot in 16 states and valid as a write-in candidate in several others. 

The debate opened on an odd note when co-moderator Christina Tobin asked a complex question about top two primaries, a voting system where party primaries are eliminated and all candidates are forced to compete in the same primary for the top two spots.

Stein, Goode, Anderson, and Johnson all answered the question but only Johnson made an effort to keep the debate focused on relevant policy instead of ballot access minutiae. The candidates were made aware of this question before they took the stage. In an interview after the debate Tobin defended her question and confirmed that this was the only question the debate participants knew of in advance.

A second Free & Equal third party debate is scheduled for October 30 in Washington, D.C. between the top two vote getters in their online post-debate poll.