Can a conservative former congressman who helped impeach President Clinton, is a board member of the National Rifle Association and has done contract work with the ACLU dent Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid?
That’s exactly what Mr. McCain would face if Bob Barr, the former Republican who joined the Libertarian Party two years ago, wins his adopted party’s presidential nomination.
“Barr obviously is dangerous. At least he negates any possible Nader benefit,” said David Norcross, a New Jersey member of the Republican National Committee and its Rules Committee chairman, arguing Mr. Barr would hurt Republicans at least as much as Ralph Nader, who has announced his own independent presidential bid, would hurt Democrats.
Republican campaign pros said a Barr bid could range from causing them some damage all the way to being the equivalent of Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential bid, which many Republicans think split their party’s voters, unseating then-President Bush and electing Democrat Bill Clinton.
“Sure, it will hurt. We’ll just have to see how much. Will it be like Perot’s run? Always that chance,” said South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson.
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A source familiar with Mr. Barr’s thinking says he likely will announce his bid this weekend, at the Heartland Libertarian Conference in Kansas City, Mo., where he is scheduled to speak.
Mr. Barr declined to say whether he would make an announcement, but told The Washington Times, “I will be there certainly, and will be addressing the convention.”
He said he has detected “significantly deep dissatisfaction with particularly the Republican Party and the Republican likely nominee,” and that leaves an opening for someone with his views.
“I think that’s something that Ron Paul tapped into very clearly, so I would see support for a candidacy, if I were to become a candidate, given the issues and philosophy that I have, coming from disaffected Republicans, new voters that were attracted to Ron Paul’s message, younger voters that have a very deep skepticism of the way the country is headed economically,” he said, adding he could appeal to liberal voters concerned about the erosion of civil liberties.
But Mr. Barr would have to make his run without the official backing of Mr. Paul.
“Ron would do nothing but wish Bob the best in any of his ventures, but at this point and for the foreseeable future, no endorsement or support,” Mr. Paul’s campaign spokesman, Jesse Benton, said, adding the two men have talked since Mr. Barr made his interest in the presidential bid known. “Ron is a Republican, and he’s trying to work through the Republican Party for change.”
Mr. Benton said Mr. Paul, whose presidential run has shifted into low gear but is not over, is still working to get like-minded supporters to run for local Republican Party offices and to shape the Republican platform. Mr. Benton said it will be up to Mr. McCain and Republican leaders whether those supporters vote Republican this year.
“A lot of them are very willing and very eager to stay with the Republican Party if they’re courted, if they’re embraced, if they’re treated right,” he said. “If not, they’re going to drop out, they’re going to look for third parties, like Congressman Barr.”
The reaction on Internet message boards suggests many Paul voters are ready to consider Mr. Barr, and some even float their idea of a dream ticket combining the two.
On the liberal side, bloggers were overwhelmingly in support of a Barr run, hoping it will siphon off otherwise Republican votes in states such as Georgia, which he served as a member of Congress for eight years.
Also, as a member of the NRA board and a fierce opponent of Mr. McCain’s campaign-finance overhaul, Mr. Barr could offer an alternative to gun rights supporters disenchanted with Mr. McCain.
Mr. McCain’s campaign did not return a call for comment for this report, but Republican political pros said Mr. Barr’s impact could depend on where he would play best.
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis said Mr. Barr could do well in conservative strongholds such as Texas and not hurt them, because Mr. McCain should win enough votes to still carry that state.
“But how he will do in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the five key swing states — that’s the question,” said Mr. Anuzis, who was in New Mexico, where Republican Party state chairmen were meeting.
Mr. Barr said he could appeal particularly to voters in libertarian-minded places such as Vermont, New Hampshire and the Rocky Mountain states, and said he would have a broader appeal than Mr. Nader’s candidacy — partly because the Libertarian Party is already qualified for the ballot in 48 states, and partly because of the principles he would espouse.
“The message that I would bring is definitely not a fringe or an extremist message, it’s a basic, mainstream message that will have a very broad appeal,” he said.
Former Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Gravel announced last month he was leaving his party to seek Libertarians’ presidential nomination, setting up an interesting nominating convention in Denver over Memorial Day weekend.
The convention is essentially a free-for-all, with delegates bound only to their consciences, says party Executive Director Shane Cory.
He said Libertarians’ membership peaked in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, when Harry Browne was their nominee, but he said with a strong name at the top of their ticket they could reach that level again.
Mr. Cory said Libertarians and Mr. Nader assist each other with ballot access, but they don’t compete for the same votes because of their different philosophies. He also said they don’t worry about hurting the two major parties.