Will John McCain have trouble rallying conservatives to his cause in November? That calculus may have gotten a little trickier with Bob Barr's entry into the race. Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, announced on Monday that he is seeking the Libertarian Party's nomination for the presidency—raising the prospect that he could become the Ralph Nader of the right.
Barr, who served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003, was best known for his leading role in the 1998 impeachment effort against President Bill Clinton; he was one of the most conservative members on Capitol Hill. But in 2006 Barr exited his party and became a Libertarian, strongly criticizing President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and the government's infringement on social liberties.
Later this month Barr will join 13 other Libertarian candidates, including Democrat turned Libertarian Mike Gravel, at the party's convention in Denver, Colo. Libertarian leaders expect Barr to be the top vote-getter among the assembled delegates. Critics rushed to denounce Barr as a spoiler, likely to siphon votes from McCain, who is already thought to have a wobbly relationship with the conservative wing of the GOP. Barr rejects the spoiler label and insists he's "in it to win it." NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone spoke with Barr about the timing of his entrance into the race and how he thinks he can compete. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What was the strategy behind entering the race now?
Bob Barr: The key is that the Libertarian convention is coming up in two weeks, and I figured I needed to do it before then. I couldn't wait much longer.
Why not a few months ago?
I didn't seriously consider it until about five or six weeks ago.
Your critics in the GOP allege that your candidacy will spoil the Republican Party's chances in November. How do you respond?
They have no idea why I'm doing it, and, plus, that's just a knee-jerk reaction. Does anybody getting into the race plan to ask the tough questions or plan to point out some of the areas where McCain is less conservative than he would like people to believe? Those pundits have no idea where my votes would come from, nor do they know about the issues I stand for. As a matter of fact, I suspect the votes I will get will come from folks who would be more inclined to sit out the election in the first place because there's not a real conservative in the race. The votes are not going to come from people that are committed to voting for McCain.
History shows that third-party candidates win few, if any, votes in the Electoral College. Can you really win?
History provides no blueprint for the future in politics. We know that by looking at the dynamics of this particular race, which are very different in terms of the significant increase of new younger voters, the deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, the more than 70 percent of voters who believe that the country is on the wrong track, the cynicism about the current administration and the fact that I have not run for president before. I'm a very different candidate from the Libertarians and other candidates who have run in the past.
Take me through your strategy. In which states will you be most competitive?
We're not going to disclose that at this point. There are a number of states that we believe, based on our analysis, give us a greater chance for carrying those states. But I don't think it would be appropriate to lay those out right now. But that is a very tangible part of our strategy.
But how will you compete with both big-party candidates?
We certainly will. Russ Verney, who is heading up our team, has very unique and very positive credentials in terms of running national campaigns in the past, and so-called outsider campaigns like [Ross] Perot in '92 and '96. We're going to make a very wide and deep use of the Internet for fund-raising and grass-roots organization. We'll take some cues from [GOP candidate Ron] Paul's campaign and Senator Obama, both of whom have shown great progress in motivating new young voters, largely through use of the Internet. That illustrates there is a pretty significant well of support for a new candidate and a new approach. A lot of these younger people I don't think are wedded to the status quo as much as their parents and grandparents, which provides a refreshing approach.
You mentioned Ron Paul. How can you unite this libertarian movement that grew so strongly for Paul over the past year?
We certainly will make that a strong part of our effort. We aim to motivate and keep [Paul's supporters] involved in emphasizing the uniqueness of my approach with similarities, certainly, that the Paul campaign was able to tap into.
You were among the most vocal opponents of President Clinton during his 1998 impeachment. What do you think of how Hillary is doing?
I don't think that the Clinton campaign has shown a tremendous ability to win votes and raise money. I don't think they were able to respond to the newness and youth of Senator Obama's campaign nor tap into that.
Do you have any residual combative feelings about the Clintons?
No. I'm not focused on that for a couple reasons. One, it's unlikely she's going to be the nominee. Secondly, what I intend to emphasize very strongly is a very positive focus on issues and not personalities.
In 2003, Reason [a libertarian magazine] called you the "most conservative member of Congress." How can you now lead the Libertarian party having once had that reputation?
I've had the opportunity over the last few years to work with the Libertarians. They've had a chance to get to know me. Of course, there are always going to be some naysayers, but the vast majority of Libertarians that I've worked with have come to understand my views and my commitment to the Libertarian Party and its principles. I also have explained many times to Libertarians that the post-9/11 world is a very different world from the one I served in Congress. The threats to our liberty in a post-9/11 world are dramatically greater than prior to that. The changes have really necessitated—in my case and I think in the eyes of a lot of Americans—a re-evaluation of where we stand on a whole range of issues regarding government power and have really highlighted the need to start rolling those back with greater urgency.
Would you admit that your just being in the race, regardless of whether you win or lose, will remove votes from the GOP candidate?
No. I don't believe the votes I'll get will come from McCain voters. Mr. McCain stands for something very different from what I do. His voters would not be likely to vote for me, and mine would not be likely do vote for him.
Do you think you can win over a sizable number of would-be Democratic voters?
A lot of the votes I will get will come from disaffected voters who are inclined not to vote for McCain. Those would be constitutional conservatives, libertarian-leaning Republicans—and, yes, even some Democrats as well are attracted to the civil liberties message of work and the credibility I have but would not be predisposed to the big-government programs that Senator Obama has planned.
Are there enough of those voters for you to win?
Absolutely. I analyze this as a three-way race.