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McCain facing more rivals: libertarians

Former Rep. Bob Barr is flanked by his wife, Jeri, and son, Derek, at the National Press Club on Monday.
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Former Rep. Bob Barr is flanked by his wife, Jeri, and son, Derek, at the National Press Club on Monday.

In the media’s eyes it’s been all Democrats, pretty much all the time, for some time. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have carried on a tooth-and-nail intramural battle long after Sen. John McCain sloughed off his rivals. This week, however, brought news that McCain may have to keep swatting at a couple of libertarians who didn’t get the message — or, more accurately, who heard and rejected it.

As former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia announced Monday that he’ll be running for president as a Libertarian, a few in the media noted that Republican Rep. Ron Paul hasn’t gone away. He’s been waging local skirmishes all across the country — with an eye to making waves at the GOP convention come September.

For his part, Barr’s announcement at the National Press Club in Washington generated both eye-rolling dismissal and words of caution. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank dripped derision in a “Washington Sketch” column, writing, “One of the reporters at the press club pointed out to Barr that there were only 30 or 40 people at his kickoff announcement (and half of those were reporters). ‘Why are we going to believe your candidacy would be met with anything besides … universal apathy?’ the questioner needled.”

Milbank also listed a number of Barr’s more colorful past actions and noted that “As one of the managers of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Barr gained enough prominence to attempt a run for the Senate in 2002. But that effort fell apart at about the time Barr accidentally fired a .38-caliber pistol through a glass door at a fundraising reception.”

Barr ‘taken more seriously for now’
In the New York Times blog The Opinionator, Tobin Harshaw was less contemptuous, writing on Monday, “While Paul has been a thorn in McCain’s side ever since he became the presumptive nominee, Barr seems to be the threat the G.O.P. is taking more seriously for now.”

Harshaw quoted the Washington Times: “Former Rep. Bob Barr says a number of Republicans have been trying to persuade him not to run for president on the Libertarian Party ticket, but none has given him a convincing reason. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Times today that ‘Bob Barr will make it marginally easier for Barack Obama to become president. That outcome threatens every libertarian value Barr professes to champion.'”

In the House of Representatives, Barr was a fiery conservative, particularly on moral issues. In the last few years, however, he’s taken libertarian positions against the Bush administration, criticizing its war in Iraq, surveillance programs, assertions of presidential power and deficit spending — thereby showing certain affinities with Democrats as well. Now the Libertarian Party, which will hold its convention over the Memorial Day weekend, is expected to nominate him as its candidate for president.

Potential hurt for McCain — or Obama?
Johanna Neuman writes today in the Los Angeles Times, “Political commentators debated the impact of Barr’s entry, with some arguing that, like Ralph Nader in 2000, who pulled votes away from Democrat Al Gore, Barr could pull enough votes away from Republican McCain in 2008 to give the Democrats the election.

“Barr confirmed that he was asked by McCain supporters not to run for fear he would pull votes from the GOP, but he defended his decision by saying that ‘American voters deserve better than simply the lesser of two evils.’ …

“But Christopher Barron, a Republican political consultant, thinks it is equally plausible that Barr could hurt Obama.

” ‘I think Bob Barr’s candidacy could impact the race — but I don’t know at this point which candidate he is likely to help or hurt,’ he said. ‘If Barr’s candidacy is fueled by the same people who supported Ron Paul — college students, antiwar advocates and hard-core libertarians — then I think it is unlikely to hurt Sen. McCain in any significant way because these are not the type of voters McCain is reaching out to. I could actually envision a scenario under which Barr’s candidacy actually helps McCain by siphoning off some of the enthusiasm among college voters and antiwar advocates for Obama.’ “

Jackson Williams, writing on the Huffington Post blog, agreed with Barron. “Conventional wisdom says a Bob Barr Libertarian run for president will take votes from the Republican John McCain, and that’s good for the Democratic nominee, but it’s not that simple.

‘Loony … but articulate’

“Former federal prosecutor and Georgia congressman Barr can be loony, but he has turned into quite the articulate civil libertarian, opposed to everything from street cameras that take pictures of your license plate and then send you a speeding ticket, to the more onerous aspects of the Patriot Act. Plenty of Democrats feel the same way on these subjects. I know I do, although I wouldn’t vote Barr for dog catcher.” 

Williams noted that “if Barr comes close to Ralph Nader’s independent neighborhood of 2000, then he’s hurting both major parties at the margins in a close race. … After all, Nader got only 2.7% of the vote nationally in 2000, but it was his 100,000 votes in tight-as-a-tick Florida that led to the election ending up at the Supreme Court.

“Democrats can’t afford that happening again any more than Republicans can. We all need to watch Bob Barr.”

As for Ron Paul, Andrew Malcolm reported in the Los Angeles Times blog, Top of the Ticket, that while attention has been focused on the Democrats, “in the meantime, quietly, largely under the radar of most people, the forces of Rep. Ron Paul have been organizing across the country to stage an embarrassing public revolt against Sen. John McCain when Republicans gather for their national convention in Minnesota at the beginning of September.”

‘A powerful lingering dissatisfaction’

Malcolm said that “what’s been largely overlooked is Paul’s candidacy as a reflection of a powerful lingering dissatisfaction with the Arizona senator among the party’s most conservative conservatives. … In the last three months, Paul’s forces, who donated $34.5 million to his White House effort and upward of a million total votes, have … been fighting a series of guerrilla battles with party establishment officials at county and state conventions from Washington and Missouri to Maine and Mississippi. Their goal: to take control of local committees, boost their delegate totals and influence platform debates.”

He continued: “Paul, for instance, favors a drastically reduced federal government, abolishing the Federal Reserve, ending the Iraq war immediately and withdrawing U.S. troops from abroad. They hope to demonstrate their disagreements with McCain vocally at the convention through platform fights and an attempt to get Paul a prominent speaking slot. Paul, who’s running unopposed in his home Texas district for an 11th House term, still has some $5 million in war funds and has instructed his followers that their struggle is not about a single election, but a long-term revolution for control of the Republican Party.”

Of Paul’s supporters, Malcolm observed: “So eager are they to follow their leader’s words, that Paul’s supporters have driven his new book, ‘The Revolution: A Manifesto,’ to the top of several bestseller lists.”

No one knows how successful he’ll be at GOP guerrilla warfare, but Minnesotans at least will have front-row seats for whatever convention action he can muster.

Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com. 

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