Spoiled!

It took six rounds of balloting for former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr to win the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party. At the Denver convention just over a week ago, he brought along a sizable group of supporters, but had to convince a large bloc of skeptical delegates to back him. That took some finessing, but the former U.S. Attorney, CIA hand, and House impeachment manager in the case of Zipper v. Clinton somehow managed it.

Though Barr officially entered the race only ten days before the start of the event, he spent several years making it possible. In 2004, he endorsed Libertarian nominee Michael Badnarik over President George W. Bush. In 2006, Barr abandoned the GOP for the LP.

It was a controversial move among Libertarians. While serving in Congress, Barr had worked to deny funds to the District of Columbia to count a pot referendum and was the principal author of the Defense of Marriage Act, a federalist quarantine measure to keep gay marriage from spreading. Needless to say, both were very un-Libertarian achievements. In fact, his voting record on a number of issues gave LP opponents plenty of ammo with which to initiate a forceful critique.

To placate his new party, Barr first, well, blunted and then changed his stance on marijuana and whispered sweet skeptical things about the war on drugs. He responded to the California Supreme Court’s recent pro-gay marriage ruling not by decrying its judicial activism, a standard Republican trope, but by praising it as “an illustration of how…states’ powers should work.”

Barr did this to help win over a party whose nominees have never received a million votes in any presidential election cycle. Libertarians hold no seats in the U.S. Congress — House or Senate. They have not been included in national presidential debates between Republicans, Democrats, and the occasional eccentric billionaire Texan. Their one electoral college vote came when a faithless elector voted for Libertarian candidate John Hospers over President Richard Nixon — in 1972. Why chase such a small prize?

One obvious answer is national ballot access, normally a huge hurdle to clear for independent candidates. The LP nominee will be on the ballot in at least 46 states. That otherwise would have cost millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man hours to accomplish.

A less cynical answer has to do with Barr’s ideology. Barr always had a libertarian streak. He once tried to run for U.S. Senate (from Georgia!) as a moderately pro-choice Republican. This tendency was exacerbated by the heavy-handed way President Bush has prosecuted the War on Terror. After he was redistricted out of a seat in 2003, Barr has worked closely with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Marijuana Policy Project and editorialized against the Patriot Act and war in Iraq.

Analysts understand that Barr could hurt Sen. John McCain in November. But they mostly miss the extent of the damage the former congressman could inflict. In the Republican primaries, John McCain showed himself to be vulnerable in the South, where the socially conservative former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee trounced him. Since Republicans usually clean up in the South, that was assumed to be a non-issue.

Barr is now perfectly positioned to plunge an electoral dagger into that soft underbelly, starting in Georgia. If Sen. Barack Obama can max out black votes and Barr can peel off some white conservatives and antiwar voters, McCain will lose several Southern states. McCain is vulnerable in key Western states as well, including Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and possibly Montana, as Barr peels off some leave-us-alone votes that Republicans can usually count on.

And then there are all those Ron Paul revolutionaries. Rep. Paul received more than a million votes in the Republican primaries this year and raised over $35 million from enthusiastic small donors. In fact, that significantly understates his support. Paul’s vote totals were held down because many of his supporters failed to register as Republicans in time for the party’s closed primaries, and his poor showings in the early contests slowed donations to mere drips.

Paul’s supporters are poised to become Barr supporters, and there’s nothing to keep them from voting for him come November. They’ll have plenty of company.

–Jeremy Lott is author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.

(Images used under a Creative Commons license courtesy Flickr users talkradionews and soggydan.)

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