Bob Barr gets Libertarian nomination

Nearly two months after announcing his candidacy for the Libertarian presidential nomination, Bob Barr got the nod at the party's convention in Denver this week-end. It took him six rounds of balloting to defeat his rivals, the last of which was research scientist Mary Ruwart.

Now, Barr moves on the to the general election where he will make his way on the ballot in many states without much effort. The Libertarian Party automatically qualifies for the ballot in many places due to past electoral results, so Barr will not be in the situation Ralph Nader was in four years ago. Nader, who was running as an independent (not as the Green candidate) spent most of his spring and summer collecting signatures and then fighting the Democrats' efforts to kick him off the ballot.

With Barr's likely presence on many ballots, the question becomes what effect he will have on the two-party contest. Will he reach beyond voters who shun the Democrats and Republicans, and can he play spoiler for one of the two candidates? As I explained in April, Barr broke with the GOP in 2006 by emphasizing issues that should endear him to Democrats -- opposition to the war in Iraq and to torture, support for the ACLU. The Ron Paul phenomenon showed that there is a way in which a libertarian can attract young and disaffected voters, the very same group that Barack Obama believes he can bring in the process.

Yet, there is little doubt that Barr's credentials lie at the Right. He was one of the main proponents of the Clinton impeachment, and the language he uses -- as does Ron Paul -- is one of a disaffected Republican, rather than of an anti-war liberal. There are many traditionally GOP voters who are not willing to vote for the Republican nominee this year because of their disapproval of Bush (it is their lack of enthusiasm that accounts for the 3 special election losses this spring and for some of the Republicans' losses in 06), and while these voters might not go as far as vote for a Democrat, they could take refuge in a third-party candidacy. Barr has a high enough profile that he could attract such disaffected Republican voters.

In particular, Barr could potentially open the door to a tighter than expected contest in Georgia. One of the states with the largest black population, Georgia has been one of the only sates that has been trending Republican even in the past few cycles. In other words, it is not the first Southern state on Obama's list. But Barr was a former Georgia congressman, and he could potentially make a good showing here if he concentrates his fire power in the state. That might not be enough to allow Obama to carry it, but it could force McCain to defend his grounds. Also, the states that are typically the most receptive to libertarian messages are the Western states that will likely feature some of the toughest battles this fall.

None of this means that Barr's getting the nomination is cause for panic for the McCain campaign. The libertarian movement is still obsessed with Ron Paul, who drew 15% in the Oregon GOP primary last week, months after McCain wrapped up the nomination. There are talks to start a gated community -- Paulville -- inspired by Paul's principles. The Texas congressman seems to be looking to force the Republican Party to give him a platform at the convention, and he has certainly earned enough delegates to have a base there. Paul continuing to attract attention will make it difficult for Barr to attract any attention and appeal to voters beyond those who have voted for the Libertarian candidate in the past 2 general elections.

There is however one way in which this week-end's news was clearly a relief for Democrats. Also vying for the Libertarian nomination was Mike Gravel, the former Alaska Senator who ran in the Democratic presidential primaries before quitting the party a few months ago. Given how little credibility the media portrayed Gravel as having, it would have been unlikely that Gravel's presence on the ballot would have affected Obama or that it would have been as much of a threat as Barr could be for McCain, but he would certainly have proved a distraction for Democrats and having two candidates on the Left (Nader and Gravel) could have been tough. Now, Barr will serve as somewhat of a balance to Nader's candidacy.



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