Barr ‘Underdog’ at Libertarian Convention
Pundits believe that Libertarian Bob Barr could siphon votes away from John McCain in November. But first he must secure his new party's nomination — which will be no easy task.
May 20, 2008 - 2:50 pm
Former Rep. Bob Barr will be an “underdog” for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination going into this week’s convention in Denver, the ex-Republican’s campaign manager said Monday.
“We definitely don’t expect to win it on the first ballot,” said Russ Verney, the Barr manager who shepherded Ross Perot’s third-party bids in 1992 and 1996. “The other [Libertarian] candidates have been out there recruiting delegates for over a year. Bob just declared his candidacy last week, so he’s definitely the underdog.”
After days of telephone calls soliciting support among LP delegates, Barr’s backers say that when the convention begins Thursday, they will be ready for a tough contest against a crowded field of Libertarian hopefuls, with several rounds of balloting likely.
“We’ll be ahead on the first ballot, but not enough to win,” said a key Barr campaign operative, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Barr confirmed that assessment on Monday, saying in a brief phone interview that his campaign was prepared to contend for the nomination through multiple ballots during Sunday’s vote at the Denver convention.
Phone surveys of delegates and state party leaders indicate Barr would get between 30 and 35 percent of the first-ballot vote, his supporters say. With a majority of delegates needed to secure the nomination in a party that doesn’t choose its candidate by primary votes, multiple rounds of balloting are not unusual at LP conventions. The party’s 2004 nominee, Michael Badnarik, scored a third-ballot win after trailing on the first two rounds of voting in Atlanta.
“It’s not a situation where you’ve got pledged delegates, like the Democrats and Republicans,” Verney said.
While the Barr campaign remains confident their candidate will ultimately win the nomination, the former Georgia congressman faces serious opposition from Libertarian rivals including Las Vegas oddsmaker Wayne Allyn Root, longtime LP activists Mary Ruwart and George Phillies, and ex-Democrat Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.
Despite Verney’s “underdog” assessment, Georgia LP chairman Daniel N. Adams said Barr is “definitely the favorite” in Denver. A Barr backer, Adams said he expects that many of Root’s supporters would be willing to back Barr in later rounds of balloting.
“I can’t believe they’d miss this opportunity,” Adams said, describing Barr’s potential to boost the November vote for a party that currently has to devote much of its organizing effort to gathering petition signatures necessary to get listed on state ballots. “If he gets 5 percent, you’re talking about guaranteed ballot access in 12 more states. That would be huge.”
Barr served four terms in Congress but lost the 2002 GOP primary to Rep. John Linder after a Democrat-controlled state legislature redrew the boundaries of Georgia’s 7th District. Barr joined the Libertarians in 2006 and served as the party’s Southeast regional coordinator until April, when he announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee. He officially declared his candidacy May 12.
A former U.S. attorney, Barr was one of the most outspoken and media-savvy conservatives elected in 1994, when Republicans led by Newt Gingrich used their “Contract With America” agenda to capture control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
Barr gained notoriety by calling for the impeachment of President Clinton even before revelations of the Monica Lewinsky affair, and was one of the House Republicans subsequently appointed to present the case against Clinton to the Senate.
‘A bloody fight’
Since Barr went public with his presidential plans last month, most in the political press have treated his LP nomination as a certainty, casting him as a potential spoiler for Republican Sen. John McCain’s campaign. The Philadelphia Inquirer described Barr as McCain’s “worst nightmare,” while George Will wrote in an April column for Newsweek that Barr could hurt McCain as badly as Ralph Nader hurt Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
However, with a few exceptions — including David Weigel, a writer for the libertarian journal Reason — political reporters have not examined the challenges Barr will face in Denver.
Because of his conservative past and relatively recent switch from the GOP, Barr is viewed with suspicion or hostility by many longtime LP members. At the North Carolina state party convention last month, Barr got only one vote in a straw poll that was won handily by Ruwart. (Noting that Ruwart had been active for many years in the North Carolina LP before moving to Texas, one libertarian wit dubbed the Tarheel State “Ruwartistan.”)
Under the rules governing the Libertarian nomination process, with unpledged delegates chosen by state party conventions, no candidate is expected to have a first-ballot majority. The field will be winnowed down as candidates are eliminated, with their supporters shifting to the remaining candidates.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” the anonymous Barr operative said, but added that he expects a “bloody fight” in Sunday’s vote, possibly stretching into “the wee hours” of Monday morning.
Adams said he expects the contest to be waged between Libertarian “purists” who fault Barr for his conservatism and “pragmatists” who see the benefit of nominating a nationally known candidate with proven political ability. That ability will be tested in Denver, where the Barr campaign — which has raised more than $100,000 according to the campaign’s official website — plans to field a team of floor managers and whips to gather delegates.
“I think the Libertarian Party’s going to see what organization looks like,” the Georgia LP chairman said.
Robert Stacy McCain, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator, is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party. He blogs at The Other McCain.