"It's the first presidential campaign button with a marijuana leaf," says Steve Kubby, grinning ear to ear. He whips out a tiny Kubby '08 pin with red letters pasted onto a familiar green leaf. Alabama political operator Steve Gordon, the suddenly controversial (after selling his Third Party Watch website to longtime GOP direct-mail activist Richard Viguerie) former Libertarian Party political director who's working for presumed frontrunner Bob Barr, takes the pin and thanks him. "I know you can't wear it," says Kubby, "but take it as souvenir."
Fluorescent yellow "Kubby 2008: Let Freedom Grow" signs have sprung up in Denver over the past 24 hours, at the beginning of the LP's most high-profile gathering in years. Kubby, a medical marijuana activist who has staged various battles with California and federal authorities, has been hobbled during this ripe year for Libertarians by an adrenal cancer that has taken a serious toll on him. "I raised travel funds, and then he couldn't travel," laments Kubby organizer and blogger Thomas Knapp. "If he'd been able to campaign, he'd be in Mary Ruwart's position right now." That is, Knapp argues, Kubby would be the preferred candidate of the LP's radical bloc.
As the convention fills up?almost 600 delegates have registered now, more than 250 of them on Friday?it's becoming clearer that this is not a Bob Barr coronation. Delegates are tolerant people who can sit through a pointless convention floor vote or a ramble from longshot Daniel Imperato, but they prefer to hear from candidates who say what they really think. Kubby and Ruwart do that.
On Friday morning, Kubby happily recalled the "Libertarians for Truth" forum, where Democrat-turned-Libertarian presidential candidate Mike Gravel asked an audience to consider cases when military force was necessary, and received a sour reception. Kubby and Ruwart, on the other hand, smacked the question out of the park. "There is no ethical argument to support government's use of force," Kubby said to zealous applause. As Ruwart patiently explained how libertarian philosophy negated Gravel's answer, Kubby grinned. When she finished, he gave her a friendly pat on the back.
Kubby's alliance with Ruwart is the single most direct threat to a Barr nomination?the outcome that most outside media still think is assured. A motion to make it harder to participate in Saturday's "C-SPAN debate" failed, making it easier for the two radical candidates to share support and propel each other into the fray. If Kubby has a surplus of debate tokens (candidates need tokens from 10% of delegates to participate), he'll give them to Ruwart; she'll do the same if the situation's reversed. If one of the campaign is falling short and the other's on the bubble for the nomination, the struggling campaign will endorse the surging one.
Knowing this, you'd think that the radical caucus would be confident. It isn't. The whiff of a Barr conspiracy permeates radical meetings. Late Friday, every campaign except Barr's gathered for an unofficial, un-televised debate. Nearly 200 people, most of them delegates, spilled in and out of the smallish venue and cheered as Mike Gravel took a wholly un-Barrish position on immigration (no border walls for him) and Kubby thwacked the frontrunner for his PATRIOT Act vote back in 2001. Outside, Kubby supporters speculated that Barr was hoarding tokens that he'd never use for the debate. He's skipped every previous debate, the theory went, so why participate in that one? (Barr's people were flabbergasted by this: "We'd go to all this effort and forfeit the debate?")
"Paulie Cannoli," a Kubby supporter and blogger who'd been unceremoniously de-credentialed by Third Party Watch, joked around and proposed that radicals make an end run around Barr. "Give him all the tokens," Cannoli said. "Let him take the stage all by himself. Then get all the candidates back in here and tell C-SPAN!" Cannoli, who brandished the media credentials of former LP Executive Director Shane Cory (a man about as popular in this circle as Donald Rumsfeld), handed out Kubby buttons and asked for support: "A token for the tokin' candidate!"
While his opponents debated, Barr held court one floor above in a sprawling hospitality suite crammed with booze (if you had cash or a ticket) and snacks (if you had neither). If he didn't get a chance to impress delegates in the debate, he made up for it here: A self-proclaimed "bisexual pagan" named John Karr proclaimed himself a likely Barr voter because the former Georgia congressman could run the strongest campaign. When the candidate stood up on chair to address the crowd, he argued for his "background and credibility" while strategically trashing his former party. "In just two days here," Barr said, "I have had more and deeper discussions of the substance of American politics, and of the Constitution, than in 30 years of Republican politics!"
Barr didn't sway everyone in the room. Michael Kielsky, a "hardcore" Arizona delegate who sported one of the radicals' "Libertarian Wing of the Libertarian Party" buttons, gave Barr some credit for moving in the right direction. But Kielsky was still backing Mary Ruwart. A few more floors above the party, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members of Outright Libertarians were partying and chewing on a big rumor: Two hundred-odd unexpected delegates would arrive from Ohio and South Carolina on Saturday or Sunday. Supporters of the Outright candidate, George Phillies, were spreading the word so that enough radicals would be in the hall to vote down credentials for the meddlers. "If they get in," said California delegate Chris Madsen, "we're looking at a first ballot Barr victory."
"If Barr gets this nomination, he'd better know that he can't count on an electoral vote majority," said Massachusetts delegate and Phillies supporter Arthur Torrey. "I'm on the slate to go to the Electoral College, and I will be a faithless elector." That's not an empty threat: The only electoral college vote the LP has ever received was from a faithless Richard Nixon elector (and future LP presidential candidate) who went for 1972 candidate John Hospers. Torrey's a pagan with a gay sister, so his support isn't really gettable for Barr. "You can't tell me my religion is evil and my sister can't get married and expect to ever get my vote."
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason. Read his first dispatch from the LP convention here.
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.