You see right there, in between the cameras? Under the boom mike, in front of the fetching female interviewer in the cowboy hat? There's Bob Barr, holding court and basking in the glow of the national political press. When Barr walked onto the exhibit floor of the 2008 Libertarian Convention, a trail of six campaign staffers followed behind him—the kind of showy political operation that gives outsiders the impression that the former Georgia congressman is the obvious frontrunner in the race to head up the biggest third-party challenge in this year's presidential campaign.
A few feet away in the Denver Sheraton, Barr's opponents are shaking their heads, sharing "can-you-believe-this" looks. "Talk to some delegates, already!" says Jim Casarjian-Perry. A Massachusetts delegate for candidate George Phillies, Casarjian-Perry had, moments earlier, pinned Barr over whether he sticks by all the propositions of the Defense of Marriage Act, which Barr authored. Casarjian-Perry lives in Massachusetts, is married to his partner, but is unable to change his new, hyphenated name on his passport or driver's license. He wasn't at all satisfied by the purported frontrunner's answer.
"Barr doesn't understand basic libertarian principles," Casarjian-Perry says. In Phillies, this delegate (an elected city government official) sees a candidate who's laying the groundwork to elect libertarians who do understand those principles. "If [Barr] makes it to the final ballot," he says, "I'm ready to vote for none of the above."
It would be a bit much, right now, to call the 2008 Libertarian nomination fight "heated" or "bitter." The delegates trickling in to Denver, ever-aware that this city hosted the embryonic stirrings of the party 36 years ago, are happy to see each other. They're gorging on free food, face-to-face conversations with people they've known only online, and brainy discussions that aren't so easy to come by back home.
Still, there's a battle gearing up, and not just over the headline fight over who will win the nomination. Two years ago, the self-described "reform caucus" of the party took over a convention in Portland and shaved the platform from 61 planks to a pocket-sized 15. The non-aggression principle in the party's declaration survived, but only narrowly. Even before Bob Barr entered this race, radicals, who estimate they have one-third of conventioneers firmly on their side, were planning to use Denver to "Restore '04" and resurrect the older, more far-reaching platform.
The specter of a recent Republican transplant leading the LP has cranked up this platform fight to 11. A flyer labeled "CALL TO ACTION: The Libertarian Party—Not For Sale!" is being distributed around the Sheraton, spelling out a six-point theory of the right-wing takeover strategy. "The Barr campaign's principals are veteran ‘partyjackers,'" says the flyer. Smoking gun? The appearance at the convention of conservative direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, who is filling a speaking slot that was once going to go to radio host Neal Boortz. "If [Barr and Viguerie are] successful, the Libertarian Party will become just one more mouthpiece for malcontent Republicans."
The rumors are unstoppable. A supporter of candidate Steve Kubby hears that close to 150 new party members crawled out of the woodwork to register Thursday. "They're Barr delegates," he speculates. "When they hold the vote to expand the number of delegates, vote 'no.' You see them trying to give the vote to someone you don't know, vote 'no.'" The story that someone is push-polling for Tucker Carlson to enter the race at the 11th hour is getting more laughs than anything else, but it jibes with the spirit of the moment. Hey, who isn't trying to take over this party?
The beneficiary of all of this, for now, is the soft-spoken and generally beloved candidate Mary Ruwart. As Barr fielded a mix of harsh and softball questions from delegates, Ruwart walked around the Sheraton finding fans. "No one is happy about the tone," Ruwart says. "I was at the 1983 convention [where the party split over the nomination of David Bergland], and it was so spiteful and destructive that I was almost done with the party." It took decades of running unity campaigns to make her optimistic again. The pre-convention attack on Ruwart's anarchist position on child pornography, and the tone of the campaign since then, has worn on her. "This might be more heated than 1983," Ruwart says. "I hope it won't be." (Copies of Short Answers to Tough Questions, the book with the passages that started the controversy, are still on sale at Ruwart's convention booth.)
The Barr campaign doesn't want a bloodbath either, which is why it's trying to out-organize and out-argue the skeptics. Barr's floor campaign is certainly the most sophisticated, which doesn't surprise many people here. From an upstairs suite, headquarters cranks out flyers, keeps track of delegates, prints drink tickets, and collates the tokens needed to get into the official Saturday night debate. The value proposition of a Barr candidacy is taking hold.
"I want us to broaden the base," says one Texas delegate and reform caucus stalwart. "I've been a Ruwart fan for a long time but she can't do that. But Barr can get 3 to 5 percent of the vote and make McCain rue the day he stopped being a conservative." Wyoming party chair Dave Herbert simply wants to "get some votes," and Barr or Wayne Allyn Root offer the best prospects for his dream of an election thrown into the House of Representatives.
This segment of the party—the ones who care first and foremost about electoral punch—worry that a debate over ideological purity will wreck their momentum. Talking to Whitney Gravel, whose recently Democratic husband Mike's bid is beset by some of these same gripes, Americans for Prosperity's Richard Burke developed a theory. "The purists don't want a political party as much as they want a church," he said. "They need a place to worship."
At the end of a first-night mixer, two delegates who'd heard all the negativity tried to stay positive. "One thing you can say is that the top five, six candidates this time are all better than the three we had last time," said one. The second delegate swirled his drink and agreed. "I don't think Gravel's really a libertarian, but it says something that he joined the party. We nominate one of these guys, build on that, and get an even better field next time." The two then started chewing over perennial dream canddiates, Gary Johnson and Ed Thompson.
If that's the attitude that catches on among LP delegates, it will get harder and harder for the party not to nominate the Georgian heretic surrounded by all the cameras.
Bonus video: On Tuesday, May 20, reason hosted a debate about "The Future of Libertarian Politics" featuring LP presidential hopefuls Wayne Allyn Root, Mike Gravel, and Bob Barr (Mary Ruwart was invited but unable to attend). Video excerpts of the conversation are below (approximately 10 minutes long). For more information, go to reason.tv.