Sunday, March 28, 2004

RICHMOND — The state’s Libertarian Party heard pitches yesterday from three presidential contenders that included abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, removing gun-control laws and bringing U.S. troops home.

The candidates, though, were hardly of the Kerry or Bush ilk. In fact, their relative facelessness is the crux of the party’s trouble.

Former Hollywood producer Aaron Russo, computer consultant Michael Badnarik and radio talk-show host Gary Nolan touted their platforms to about 70 people at their party’s annual convention in hopes of securing a ballot spot. The final candidate will be chosen in May at the party’s national convention in Atlanta.

The trio espoused a monolithic sentiment of limited government — the party’s mantra since it was founded in Colorado in 1971.

“Most of what our government is doing is unconstitutional,” Mr. Badnarik said in opening his presentation. “And most people understand that but don’t know what to do about it.”

Mr. Nolan promised to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and bring U.S. troops home from all stations abroad, adding that “if you want a smaller government, you really can’t vote for George Bush, can you?”

“We need a candidate who is going to get out and spread the word” of the Libertarian Party, he said. The party claims to have around 123,000 registered voters nationwide.

It is Mr. Russo, though, who, if even vaguely, has some star power via his Hollywood career.

The one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate in Nevada was the producer of Bette Midler’s “The Rose” in 1979 and the Dan Aykroyd/Eddie Murphy movie “Trading Places” in 1983.

“I watched the shock-and-awe campaign,” said Mr. Russo, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, referring to the White House hype phrase attached to last year’s military assault on Iraq. “It was like some movie I could have produced.”

He challenged his candidate colleagues to devote 50 percent of their campaign funding to television advertising, a move he said would inevitably give a boost to the public profile of Libertarians.

Mr. Badnarik accepted the challenge, agreeing to the 50 percent, but Mr. Nolan declined.

“What we need, though, is someone, a candidate who can attract national attention, like [Ralph] Nader or [Ross] Perot did,” said Kevin Rollins, who puts out the Free Liberal, a bi-monthly newspaper that calls itself an “independent journal of liberal and libertarian thought.”

The party claims 603 elected members nationwide, many at the lower levels of city and county government.

In the 2000 presidential election, investment banker Harry Browne represented the party and drew 384,000 votes. In 1996, he earned 485,000 votes.

But Mr. Browne didn’t have the name — or face — recognition of the Green Party’s Ralph Nader or a Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party candidate who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998.

So one of the dilemmas discussed here yesterday was the idea of style over substance.

“It is important for us to come across as major league players even if we don’t win the pennant,” said Robert McBride, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent last year for the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.

The party hopes to continue to draw disaffected Americans into its tent, such as Don Hogan. The 51-year-old businessman turned to the Libertarian Party last June after a lifelong Republican affiliation.

Now, Mr. Hogan is campaigning for a seat in the U.S. Congress from Virginia’s 6th District, going up against incumbent Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, a Republican.

“Even if I lose, I win,” said Mr. Hogan, 51, who runs a process serving company. “I am doing something I have always wanted to do, and I am forcing my opponent to deal with things he hasn’t wanted to deal with. Specifically, an opponent.”

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