DENVER — It's not easy being a Libertarian candidate, as Doug Anderson can tell you.
"I was campaigning outside the Denver Public Library at their used-book sale," recalled Mr. Anderson, who made it a point to identify himself to voters as a Libertarian. "One guy heard me and said, 'Librarians? That's great. I didn't know the librarians had their own political party.'"
Mr. Anderson, who managed to win his race for the Lakewood City Council in Colorado despite such confusion, had high hopes for his party's future as he mingled yesterday with more than 1,000 like-minded free-market types attending this weekend's 2008 Libertarian National Convention.
"I've gotten a very positive response," he said. "Almost everyone you meet knows someone who's Libertarian."
That's what national Libertarians are counting on as they prepare to nominate their candidate for president today. With several seasoned politicians seeking the nod, members of the nation's largest third party are hoping to fill the void among voters disgusted with Republicans and Democrats.
Leading the list are former Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and former Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, who switched to the Libertarian Party in March after an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Despite their very different political backgrounds — Mr. Barr was known as a conservative during his House tenure and Mr. Gravel was a leader of the anti-war movement — both fit quite comfortably in the Libertarian Party, according to party members.
"Democrats tend to support more freedom socially but not economically. Republicans want more freedom economically, but not socially," said Clint Jones, president of Colorado Libertarians. "We would like to have more freedom on both sides."
There's plenty for liberals to like about the Libertarians, including their support for homosexual marriage and drug decriminalization, as well as their current opposition to the war in Iraq. Even so, Republicans worry that a Barr candidacy could pull votes from Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting Sen. John McCain.
Yesterday was a key test of strength — candidates had to turn in 57 delegate endorsements to be included in a debate last night, scheduled to air live on C-SPAN. Mr. Gravel and Mr. Barr were among the seven candidates who met that threshold, but support was evenly spread, suggesting a tight race today that could go to multiple votes.
Mr. Barr collected 94 "tokens," according to a Libertarian Party press release, the same number as oddsmaker Wayne Allyn Root and author Mary Ruwart. Mr. Gravel gathered 67 tokens, followed closely by software businessman Mike Jingozian (63), college professor George Phillies (62) and pro-marijuana activist Steve Kubby (60).
Keynote speaker Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative activist who pioneered fundraising by direct mail, blasted the Republican Party yesterday for trying to "bribe" voters with out-of-control spending, and urged small-government conservatives to consider the Libertarian Party.
"John McCain has had the nomination sewn up for three months, and he's done nothing to convince conservatives to come off the sidelines and join him," Mr. Viguerie said.
There's reason for concern. Third-party candidates have affected the outcome in two of the past four presidential elections, most recently in 2000, when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader pulled enough liberal voters from Democrat Al Gore to cost him Florida and thus the overall election. In 1992, Ross Perot's independent candidacy grabbed 19 percent of the vote and managed a second-place finish in two states — Maine and Utah.
Libertarians say they're just giving voters more options.
"Ralph Nader will tell you Al Gore pulled votes from him," said Sean Haugh, Libertarian Party political director.
"That's how we feel about the Republican Party. People mistakenly vote for Republicans because they think they believe in smaller government," said Mr. Haugh. "As we've seen, Republicans can grow government as fast as Democrats. Republicans are taking votes from us they haven't earned.
Ruth Bennett, who's running for the party's national chairmanship, said Libertarians have been accused of siphoning votes from Democrats. She pointed to her 2004 run for Washington governor, which Democratic candidate Christine Gregoire won by just 129 votes.
"Part of this is the fallacy that Democrats and Republicans own these votes," said Ms. Bennett, a cultural liberal who ran on a platform of "marriage equality" that likely would hold more appeal for Democrat-leaning voters.
The Libertarians are also girding for a platform fight. Two years ago, the party drastically pared its platform from more than 14,000 words to about 2,000, hoping to broaden their appeal to voters by laying out general principles instead of specifics.
Backers of the more detailed platform, known as the "radicals," will try to overturn the 2006 vote, said party spokesman Andrew Davis.
Ideally, say Libertarians, voters on all sides will find something to like about the candidate and platform. "We hope we pull votes from everyone," Mr. Jones said.
The following are the 10 candidates who will contest for the Libertarian Party presidential-nomination today in Denver:
Bob Barr: The former Republican congressman and House impeachment manager is the best-known candidate in the field but opposed by party "purists" as a recent convert and on the party's left.
James Burns: The former chairman of the Nevada Libertarian Party served nine months in jail for tax resistance in the 1980s and predicts he would be impeached if he became president without 34 Libertarian senators.
Mike Gravel: Former Alaska senator - the only candidate other than Mr. Barr to have held elected office - and a Democratic presidential candidate early this year, liberal on social issues and what he calls "the endless war."
Daniel Imperato: The Catholic businessman from Florida has made several third-party efforts, stressing a conservative stance on cultural issues and favoring immigration.
Mike Jingozian: The software company founder from Oregon is an environmentalist and has pushed a Green-Libertarian fusion against the two major parties.
Steve Kubby: The California businessman and former gubernatorial candidate is a longtime activist for marijuana legalization.
George Phillies: The college professor was a 2002 candidate for chairman of the Libertarian National Committee. He favors gay marriage and says the government should have nothing to say on abortion.
Wayne Allyn Root: The former Republican TV-show host and Las Vegas sports handicapper has done well in Libertarian straw votes and his Web site promises to "finish the job Ron Paul started."
Mary Ruwart: The longtime Libertarian activist and author is a leading "purist" in the party who prompted a furor over a book condemned as defending child pornography.
Christine Smith: The humanitarian activist calls herself a "peace-driven candidate" and says her first act would be to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq.
Source: Campaign Web sites, Wikipedia and The Washington Times research