Can Libertarian Bob Barr Take Advantage Of Voter Frustration?

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Private markets fail, politicians from both parties jump to their rescue, and taxpayers get stuck with the bill. Libertarian candidate Bob Barr couldn't have scripted a better story line to argue that Republicans and Democrats are interchangeable - with a helpless addiction to spending.

Can Barr capitalize on it during the closing weeks of the presidential campaign? Republican strategists fear any gains he makes could come at the expense of their ticket because Barr's economic views are closer to those of GOP nominee John McCain than to Democrat Barack Obama.

Polls so far aren't registering a shift to the Libertarian candidate in spite of widespread outrage over the $700 billion rescue package. The former GOP congressman from Georgia is languishing with about the same 1 percent share of support he's had for months.

But Barr is sharpening his attacks on McCain, hoping that fiscal conservatives frustrated over McCain's support for the bailout will join his anti-government campaign. Barr says traffic on his Web site is spiking, donations are picking up and the campaign is getting angry calls from Republicans who feel betrayed.

"McCain just seems to make it worse and worse," Barr said in an interview this week. "In the debate he gave this muddled answer about increasing government purchases of troubled mortgages. This is a self-described conservative Republican urging the Department of the Treasury to buy people's mortgages."

"This illustrates just how far the Republican Party in particular has slid," Barr said. "One would expect it from the Democrats, but for Republicans to be championing this massive government intervention down to the level of purchasing individual mortgages is unbelievable."

Brian Rogers, a McCain spokesman, said the campaign is not concerned because McCain has a consistent record of fighting wasteful spending and supporting what is in the national interest, not "what's politically expedient."

"We feel very strong about the McCain-Palin ticket's support among fiscal conservatives and Republicans at large," Rogers said. "There's a big choice in November and they recognize that he's the better choice."

Barr doesn't mind criticizing McCain in personal terms. Earlier this month, he issued a statement saying, "Sen. McCain claims he can act in a bipartisan manner, but his actions on the Wall Street bailout bill shows he acts in a bipolar manner."

Since he won the Libertarian nomination in May, Republicans have worried that Barr could hurt McCain.

Yet Barr, who built a national following in the 1990s for relentlessly pursuing President Clinton's impeachment, has been overshadowed by unusually competitive party primaries and a historic general election featuring the first black nominee from a major party and the first Republican woman nominated for vice president.

A national Associated Press-GfK poll taken Sept. 27-30 found Barr with just 1 percent support. In recent polls in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, he has less than that.

But even tiny percentages for third-party candidates could have an impact. In Florida, a CNN poll released Oct. 1 showed Obama at 51 percent to McCain's 47 percent in a head-to-head matchup. McCain's support fell to 43 percent when Barr was listed along with independent candidate Ralph Nader and Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney.

Not even Nader can make sense of why he would appeal to potential McCain voters rather than Obama supporters.

"I have no idea," said Nader. "You have to ask the pollsters. It really is counterintuitive."

Unlike in 2004, when lawsuits in 18 states challenged Nader's right to be on the ballot, Democrats have yet to file a challenge this year. They recognize it's in their interest to include third-party candidates, said Jason Kafoury, national coordinator for the Nader campaign.

Nader - also an opponent of the financial bailout - is on 45 ballots, one more than he was in 2000 when he won more than 2.7 percent of the vote. He was on just 34 ballots four years ago when his vote total fell to 0.38 percent.

In Barr's case, the bailout could marginally boost his campaign, said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist who studies presidential politics at Emory University. But he said Barr needs to get his message out more effectively to make any gains.

"It's the kind of issue that should work for him. I'm sure that some die-hard conservatives are very unhappy with McCain over his support for the bailout," Abramowitz said. "But as far as it having much impact, I don't think Barr is visible enough at this point."

David Winston, a Washington-based Republican pollster, agreed and said many voters who initially opposed the bailout have come around to it after seeing the stock market drop and the financial crisis spread globally.

"My sense is it'll get Bob Barr some publicity, but ultimately voters who had difficulty with the idea, as much as they don't like what happened, they also recognize at a practical level that some action had to occur," Winston said.


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