Libertarian says party on right track

Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee, has been telling people since he got into the race that he thinks he really has a chance to win.

But even Barr was surprised by recent polling that put his little-known third party ticket at 6 percent of the nationwide vote, and double digits in some states.

"We're obviously doing something right," Barr said in an interview in Las Vegas on Friday night.

The former Georgia congressman, a trim, bespectacled 59-year-old with a neat gray mustache, attributed the strong showing to people's yearning for a political alternative in these turbulent times.

"The continued bad news coming out of Washington helps us," he said. "People feel they need change. Our pitch is, 'You're right, and you've come to the right place.' America deserves better than people always having to pick the lesser of two evils."

Barr was attending a fundraiser at the local home of his running mate, sports handicapper Wayne Allyn Root, although it wasn't clear a financial contribution was required to attend -- some said they were there for the free food.

The 25 or so attendees at the gathering at Root's ostentatious mansion in Henderson's Anthem development were mostly Libertarian Party stalwarts, including many who are running for office locally, and friends of Root, including his physician, Dr. Loring Jacobs, and poker player Phil Gordon, former host of television's "Celebrity Poker Showdown," who lives down the street. A chocolate fountain burbled in a corner, while a sweeping spiral staircase dominated the front room.

Although the Libertarians hope the relative success in the Republican primary of a past Libertarian nominee, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, bodes well for them, Friday's small, subdued gathering was a far cry from the grass-roots enthusiasm Paul has generated.

A national Zogby poll released last week put Democrat Barack Obama ahead of Republican John McCain by 44 percent to 38 percent, with Barr at 6 percent and Ralph Nader, who's running this year as an independent candidate and recently submitted a petition to get on the ballot in Nevada, at less than 2 percent.

Barr will be on the Nevada ballot because the Libertarian Party has scored enough votes in previous elections to give its nominee ballot access.

In Nevada, the Zogby poll, apparently the first poll in the state to include third parties, put Barr at 9 percent and the major-party candidates tied at 38 percent each. Other recent polls had put McCain slightly ahead in Nevada, suggesting that Barr is taking votes from McCain.

Barr is consciously following in the footsteps of Ross Perot, whose 1992 and 1996 candidacies are thought to have handed Nevada, and perhaps the presidency, to Bill Clinton. Perot's former campaign manager is working for Barr, and his top task right now is to get him into the presidential debates.

In Nevada, Perot got 10 percent of the vote in 1992 and 27 percent in 1996.

"If we can get into the debates, the contrast with the two statist core parties will be so obvious that I truly believe we will win," Barr said.

What Democrats and Republicans are proposing, he said, is not the overhaul for which people are hungry. "None of it really gets to what's bothering Americans: Government is too big, too bothersome, too involved in their lives," Barr said.

Barr's current role as the Libertarians' front man represents an odd turn of events. It was largely Libertarians who in 2002 drove Barr from his post as a Republican representative from Georgia, targeting him primarily for his opposition to medical marijuana.

Barr said he didn't take the defeat personally. Rather, he became curious about his foes, and the more he learned, he said, the more he found himself sympathetic to their ideas. It was a "political epiphany" that coincided with his sense that the Republican Party was moving away from him.

Now, he hopes to put a politically presentable face on what has mostly been a fringe movement.

"America is very much a libertarian country," Barr said. "The libertarian message is very much the message of our founding fathers. It's very mainstream. The Libertarian Party has not always done the best job getting the message out."

Barr said he thinks the frantically energetic Root will be an asset. "He's constantly on the move, and he's channeling that energy in the right ways," he said.

One of the fundraiser attendees, Allen Hacker, had seen many Libertarian tickets come and go, and said he felt good about this one. Hacker was there for the Libertarian Party's original chartering in 1972 and ran for U.S. Senate in Nevada in 1980.

"We have credible candidates this time, guys the public will respond to," Hacker said. "We're not all computer programmers anymore. Some of us are salespeople."

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball or 702-387-2919.