Libertarian Bob Barr Jumps Into Presidential Race

Libertarians looking to have a higher-profile candidate than they did in 2004 are rejoicing this week-end as former Congressman Bob Barr announced that he is forming a presidential explanatory committee. He made this announcement at a Libertarian conference in Kansas City, Missouri; it will take a few more weeks, naturally, for any formal declaration of candidacy, and then to see what Barr's chances are to get the Libertarian line on the ballot.

Bob Barr became a darling of conservatives in the 1990s for taking the lead in anti-Clinton efforts and particularly in becoming one of the main congressional figures pushing for the President's impeachment. Since he left office, he has served on the NRA and on the American Conservative Union Foundation.

Yet, the issues on which Barr has focused over the past few years should also endear him to left-leaning voters -- speaking out against torture, against the war, lobbied on behalf of the ACLU. Thus, there would clearly be some on the Left who will be attracted to his emphasis on civil liberties and his anti-war discourse. Just as Ron Paul drew some of his support from disenchanted Democrats (and reportedly former Kucinich supporters).

But there is little doubt that Barr would draw most of his supporters from voters who lean Republican in federal elections. Libertarians usually vote for the GOP when they cast a ballot for one of the major parties (there is a reason Ron Paul was running for the Republican nomination).

More importantly, the reason Bob Barr has a high profile and could make some waves in the coming months is his 1990s anti-Clinton agitation and his very conservative position on a number of issues that put him at odds with libertarians: He was a fierce defender of the War on Drugs, though he appears to have become a defender of medical marijuana since his libertarian conversion. It is from the Right that Barr will get the most votes, the most help and the most funds.

Bob Barr is primarily focused on explaining why the Republican Party has gone astray and abandoned its roots, and that his anti-war discourse is that of a disaffected conservative rather than an anti-Republican partisan. This is a language many Republicans will relate to after 8 years of the Bush Administration has some conservatives grumbling that he has abandoned them.

And that is a language that might appeal to some conservatives reluctant to support McCain, viewed as a heretic in some circles. Some oppose him because of his refusal to take the hard line on issues gay marriage and torture -- on which Barr agrees with him -- but most of the anti-McCain sentiment among conservatives rests on economic issues, his vote against cutting taxes and his sponsoring campaign finance. For voters who aren't sure if they could vote McCain because of stuff like this, Barr is a good protest vote.

Naturally, there is no reason as of now for McCain to worry. Third-party bids are not easy to get off the ground in the US and odds are always against a candidate managing to break into significant poll numbers. But Bob Barr has enough of a profile and enough good will that he is entitled to hope that he could make a strong run and peel away support from the Arizona Senator.

Former Alaska Senator (and former Democratic candidate) Mike Gravel is also considering pursuing the Libertarian party nod. As I explained last week, a Gravel candidacy could have different implications for general election dynamics.