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A former elephant in the room

Libertarian candidate Bob Barr is running a threadbare campaign, but the ex-Republican might win enough votes to hurt John McCain.

July 23, 2008|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Bob Barr called a news conference last month to discuss his idea of the perfect Supreme Court justice, a phone booth could have accommodated the reporters who showed up.

Nonetheless, the Libertarian Party's candidate for president was no-nonsense: Cuff links fastened, mustache trimmed, he ripped into John McCain's interpretation of the Constitution, words like "penumbra," as in "outside the penumbra of Sen. McCain's misunderstanding," rolling off his famously tart tongue.

Then he threw it open to questions from members of the Fourth Estate, whose average age looked to be about 19.

"Do you think the country is ready for a president with a mustache?"

"Do you think you could take Ron Paul in an arm-wrestling match?"

Clearly, one of the many challenges of Barr's fanciful bid for the White House is figuring out how to get America to take him seriously.

Barr, 59, is not without political credentials -- a four-term Republican congressman from Georgia, he crusaded to impeach President Clinton for abuse of power even before the country heard the name Monica S. Lewinsky.

But out on the presidential campaign trail, hardly anyone asks about his plans to end taxes or get out of Iraq. When they aren't focusing on facial hair, they want to know if he plans to steal the election from McCain, the likely GOP nominee, and hand it to Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.

Barr is regularly compared to Ralph Nader, the Green Party spoiler who drew crucial votes from Democrat Al Gore in 2000. Worried McCain supporters have begged Barr to drop out. The renegade responds with his famous bespectacled glare, referring to himself in the third person, as is his habit: "The GOP has no agenda, no platform and a candidate who generates no excitement. That's not Bob Barr's fault."

Being regarded as a spoiler is not his first choice, but if it gets him on CNN -- which it did twice in as many days during a recent week of campaigning -- then so be it. This is known as free media, all Barr can afford since he started out 18 months and millions of dollars behind his more famous rivals. His operation is so frugal, campaign manager Russ Verney personally authorized a case of Dr. Pepper and a big jar of pretzels for the untested staffers, who are so young they have to pay a premium to rent a car.

Barr is running as a Libertarian because he thinks the Republican Party -- which he once served with such enthusiasm that his house and offices overflow with elephant decor -- has run off the rails.

In fact, as much as he despised Clinton, Barr thinks President Bush is worse. "What George W. Bush has done to the fabric of our constitutional government, to separation of powers, to a government of limited powers, is absolutely unforgivable," he said.

Throughout his political life, Barr has been portrayed as a humorless, pessimistic grump who never smiles. In truth, he has a rather nice smile, though his staff has to prod him to use it, sometimes by telling him a joke before he goes on TV.

At the moment, though, Barr is not smiling. He is applying lip balm to have his picture taken by a national newspaper.

"My philosophy is much smaller government, much greater personal freedom, and start dramatically reducing the size of the federal government," Barr said.

The chances of him winning are infinitesimally small. National polls show his support in the low- to mid-single digits. But the last two presidential elections turned on one state -- Florida, then Ohio -- and if Barr captures enough votes in even one contest, he might affect this year's outcome.

That prospect is greatest in Barr's home state of Georgia. Obama is already running ads targeting an untapped pool of African Americans and younger voters. State polls suggest Barr's single-digit following pulls mostly from McCain.

"If Barr can win 5 or 6 points of the total vote -- it's an if but it's conceivable -- then Obama could win Georgia," said Merle Black, who teaches political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

Barr's anti-government message has resonance in the Mountain states. He is courting the young, irreverent voters who backed Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a former contender for president whom Barr calls one of his best friends. (They have never arm-wrestled, he peevishly notes.)

"What I need to do through my candidacy is make sure his supporters know that Bob Barr is out there," he said.

It's 2:30 in the afternoon, and Barr is asking for his Starbucks -- five shots of espresso topped off with steamed half-and-half. The barista emits a low whistle. Barr downs at least three of these a day, right up until bedtime.

"What has to do with your ability to fall asleep is not caffeine. It's having a clean conscience. I have a clean conscience so I can drink all the caffeine I want," he said.

He heads into the Washington heat on the way to a private meeting with a supporter, his thoughts shattered by a wailing siren, which he assumes is a frivolous motorcade. "When I'm president, that all stops," he declared.

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