Newly minted presidential nominee Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party may not be a household name, but the former Republican congressman from Georgia has caught the attention of the GOP's most passionate wing: supporters of libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas.
Though Mr. Paul is still running for president as a Republican, and scoring a fair share of votes in the late primaries – he won 16 percent in Pennsylvania – Sen. John McCain of Arizona has locked up the Republican nomination. But in the fall, Senator McCain will need all the votes he can get. And if a significant number of Paul supporters coalesce around Mr. Barr, that could spell trouble for McCain.
But that's a big "if." At the party convention in Denver last weekend, Barr won the Libertarian nomination on the sixth ballot, amid deep divisions over the direction of the party. Libertarianism centers on a belief in small, unintrusive government and puts a premium on individual liberty. As a member of Congress, Barr was known for three things: helping manage the impeachment of President Clinton, the war on drugs, and opposition to gay rights.
"At least on those latter two, he's got to adjust his image," says David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. "He's started to do that, but if he's going to sound like a libertarian, then he's going to need to emphasize his opposition to the Iraq war."
Enter Ron Paul, and his vocal, generous supporters. Though national polls show only a small percentage of Republicans backing his candidacy, his fundraising has been prodigious, at more than $30 million. He maintains that he will take his nomination effort all the way to the Republican convention in Minneapolis-Saint Paul in September, but analysts believe the best he can get is a spot on the speakers' list – and, if he declines to help Barr in any way, perhaps even a prime-time speech.
So far, Paul has not spoken publicly about Barr's Libertarian nomination. And Paul's supporters are considering their options. "My heart will always be with Ron Paul, and I'll be fighting for him all the way to the National Convention," writes Frank Koch, a computer programmer from Columbus, Ohio, in an e-mail.
As for his vote in November, he adds: "I'm personally leaning toward the Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin, but a large percentage of Ron Paul supporters are currently looking at Bob Barr. Voting for McCain, Hillary [Clinton], or [Barack] Obama is completely out of the question for all Constitution-loving activists."
Jane Aitken, a pro-Paul activist in Bedford, N.H., says she's not sure she likes Barr, but doesn't know what she'll do in November. "I could always have a good conscience and write in Ron Paul, and know that I didn't help someone like John McCain," says the retired schoolteacher.
Mr. Boaz, who hasn't endorsed anyone, doesn't rule out that some Paul supporters could even end up voting for likely Democratic nominee Barack Obama, because of his consistent opposition to the Iraq war. Some will end up with McCain, he adds, and others may not vote at all.
If the Paul vote splinters in numerous directions, then McCain can relax. And the typical Libertarian take in a presidential race, about 400,000 votes, also won't doom McCain, as long as it is spread thin around the country.
But there is a scenario in which Barr could become the Ralph Nader of the 2008 race – an echo of the third-party effort in 2000 that analysts believe took enough votes away from Democratic nominee Al Gore to cost him the crucial state of Florida.
Take Barr's home state of Georgia. A recent poll by Insider Advantage showed Barr winning 8 percent of the November vote there versus 45 percent for McCain and 35 percent for Senator Obama. Georgia has a large African-American population, and if Obama can generate high turnout in that community, a key part of his base, then that plus Barr could cost McCain the state – and conceivably the election.
This is a long-shot scenario, and the general-election campaign has not fully begun. But McCain cannot ignore Barr, especially if Paulites start to use him as a vehicle for a protest vote. A big challenge for Barr will be fundraising. So far, he has raised $155,000, according to his campaign website. He is likely not to be included in presidential debates. So getting the word out will be difficult.