Will the Libertarians Spoil McCain's Chances?

At Tuesday night's Libertarian debate, the party's most celebrated presidential candidate wasn't even there. In fact, he isn't even a Libertarian. And yet his name was invoked almost a dozen times in the course of the hourlong debate leading up to this weekend's Libertarian convention.

Last week Ron Paul—a Republican, at least in name—crossed the 1 million mark for votes. At the Washington offices of the Libertarian monthly magazine Reason, Matt Welch, the magazine's editor-in-chief, introduced the debate with a nod to the Texas congressman: "We're here to talk about Libertarian politics in 2008 and what is shaping up to be something of a Libertarian moment in the wake of Ron Paul's ongoing revolution," Welch said.

With only one day left before the Libertarian convention—which will run from Thursday through Monday in Denver, Colo.—the 14 Libertarian candidates are all trying to cash in on Paul's appeal. No surprise, considering that Paul has far exceeded the vote counts of past Libertarian presidential contenders. Paul has also managed to hold on to more than $5 million in campaign funds, a remarkable sum, given that Sen. John McCain clinched the Republican nomination in March and that Paul's candidacy, as he told NEWSWEEK in March, is more about sending a message than winning the White House.

But other Libertarians are thinking about the White House—if not winning it, then at least influencing the outcome. A Rasmussen poll released last weekend shows that newly declared Libertarian candidate Bob Barr (assuming he secures his party's nomination) would likely eat into McCain's numbers, winning 6 percent of the electorate and leaving McCain with 38 percent to Sen. Barack Obama's 42 percent (another 4 percent would go to independent candidate Ralph Nader). So a Libertarian candidate could very well swing the election. As Welch put it, there is a "possibility that a third party this year is going to Naderize John McCain," a reference to Nader's spoiler role in the 2000 presidential race.

But the three Libertarian presidential candidates who participated in Tuesday's debate—businessman Wayne Allyn Root, former senator Mike Gravel and former congressman Bob Barr—avoided the spoiler issue. Instead the moderator focused on questions like which federal agency the candidates would eliminate. Both Root and Barr said they would do away with the Department of Education (as Root put it, "The Constitution doesn't have the word education in it"), while Gravel said he'd ax the IRS: "We tax individuals, we tax our savings, but we don't tax wealth. Does that not give a message to the American people that we've got things cattywampus?"

The one thing all three candidates agreed on is that the Libertarian Party is poised to break into the mainstream. "Inside every American beats the heart of a Libertarian," said Barr, who switched to the Libertarian Party in 1996 after spending eight years as a Republican congressman from Georgia. "What we need to do now is show the American people that [Libertarianism] is mainstream. For too long Libertarians have been silenced and painted as extreme. But Libertarianism is more mainstream and bedrock American than any other program our country has ever produced."

Root, a millionaire, Spike TV host and former Las Vegas odds maker, is betting that the Libertarians can make it into the mainstream by attracting gamers. Root says that online poker players soured on the GOP in 2006, after the Republican Congress passed a bill restricting online poker. "There are 12 million poker enthusiasts in this country who had poker ripped away from them in 2006," said Root. "I'm a celebrity in their world. I can bring more gravitas to the [Libertarian Party] than it has ever had before, starting with those 12 million online poker players." Root said that he and Karl Rove—seated at Root's kitchen table one night in 2006—debated the fate of online poker. Root said he told Rove that banning online poker would demoralize the GOP. "Rove said, 'Wayne, that's ridiculous. Poker?'" recalled Root. "Karl Rove laughed, and the Republican revolution ended."

The feisty Root faced some tense moments. At one point he was asked to explain why he had written a $1,000 check for one of Sen. Joe Lieberman's campaigns. Root said the check had been cut as a favor to a business partner who also happened to be a bundler, collecting campaign donations from PACs and individuals for Lieberman. "I'm a businessman above all else," Root explained unapologetically. Later in the debate he complained that the moderator had "put me on the spot." The moderator responded, "That's the point."

But most media interest centered on how much the Barr candidacy could damage McCain. "I don't anticipate being a spoiler," Barr told a gaggle of reporters gathered around him after the debate. "I'm in this race to win. I know it's a long shot, but I'm a competitor, not a spoiler." When asked if McCain was trying to discourage Barr from running, or whether the Arizona senator had reached out to him at all, Barr said, "I don't know that McCain reaches out to anyone, and he certainly hasn't reached out to me. That's not what he's about."

Barr's campaign manager, Russell Verney, who also managed Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign, told NEWSWEEK that "those people claiming that [Barr] is going to be a spoiler should buy some cheese to go with that wine. We are not spoiling anything. Competition is the backbone of America. And no one can take votes from anyone else, because votes are not a birthright. Votes have to be earned."

As far as earned votes, it seems that a few may actually be inherited from Ron Paul. For Richard Howard, a registered Republican from outside of Annapolis, Md., Paul's failure to clinch the GOP nomination was terribly disappointing. "I was a Ron Paul supporter," explained Howard before last night's debate. "But he's running as a Republican, and he's not going to make it as a Republican, so that's why I'm here tonight: I am going to look at the Libertarian candidates."

Paul may not have run under the Libertarian name, but he still carried the party's hopes. After the debate, Jon Kraus, a member of Gravel's communications team, chuckled and shook his head. "You know," said Kraus, "you hear his name tossed around as though he were the de facto nominee. Like Ron Paul were the patron saint of Libertarianism." The problem is, it needs one.