Saturday, May 24, 2008

These folks could spoil the party for McCain


Sen. John McCain is champing at the bit to run against Sen. Barack Obama in the fall. But the presumptive GOP nominee should also worry about his own right flank. Bob Barr entered the presidential race this month as a Libertarian, and while the former Republican congressman from Georgia isn't going to become president, his run is no joke. Barr might well inherit the sizable support garnered by Rep. Ron Paul during his own run for the Republican nomination.

Though Barr's promises to drastically shrink government spending, begin withdrawing from Iraq and protect civil liberties will undoubtedly appeal to capital-L Libertarians, there's little evidence that he has much of a national following. Reporters covering his announcement noted that no Libertarian candidate has ever garnered more than 1 million votes. But he could still siphon votes from McCain in the fall -- not because Barr is such a compelling candidate, but because he could become the vehicle for the many disaffected Republicans gathered under Paul's flag. Consider the following facts:

•More than a million votes have been cast for Paul.

•Paul's activists are swarming local Republican party committees and conventions, quietly capturing or lining up delegates.

•And on the Web, the Paul movement -- which, astonishingly, generated enough grass-roots support to make him the top Republican presidential money-raiser in the fourth quarter of 2007 -- is still going strong.

Clearly, one sizable chunk of the Republican base -- small-government types who also oppose the Iraq war -- hasn't reconciled itself to voting for McCain. At the Republican National Convention, Paul may have a couple of dozen delegates and enough street presence to spoil McCain's show. If Barr manages to capture the attention of Paul's base, it could spell real danger for McCain.

Consider some third-party-candidate history from 2000. While everyone has fixated on whether Ralph Nader cost Al Gore Florida, TV commentator Patrick Buchanan, running on the Reform Party banner, got enough votes in Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin to tip them out of George W. Bush's hands. Ron Paul's sizable grass-roots movement will probably still be looking for a champion. Bob Barr won't be president, but he could still gore McCain.

Micah L. Sifry, author of "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America," wrote this article for the Washington Post.

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