WASHINGTON – Smaller government, protecting civil liberties, getting U.S. troops out of Iraq and ensuring that a military draft won’t be instituted to fight a protracted War on Terror (search) are all staples of the Libertarian Party's (search) presidential campaign this year.
But Michael Badnarik (search), the 49-year-old computer programmer and constitutional scholar who emerged victorious in the party's recent presidential nominating convention, said he's hoping to preach not just to the choir. Libertarians are trying to appeal to like-minded voters among President Bush’s conservative base, convincing them that the administration has ignored their interests in the last four years.
"In 2000, [Americans] voted in opposition to someone rather than in favor of someone. Now that they’ve seen the result of their voting, they are very disenchanted," he said. "They don’t want another four years of George Bush and they're not very excited about John Kerry (search)."
Badnarik started as an underdog in a party of underdogs, but said he is now ready to convince mainstream voters they don’t have to settle for the "lesser of two evils" any longer.
"Part of our campaign is to let voters know that when you vote for the lesser of two evils, you are still faced with evil," he said. "We are another choice. We are a viable choice. I am dedicated to getting this message out to as many people as I can."
Of course, not everyone is convinced that Bush has much to worry about. Polls show high support — between 85 and 90 percent depending on recent surveys — for the president among Republicans. Bush supporters say Libertarians continue to represent only a small sliver of the conservative movement.
"I don’t worry. I don’t know anybody who's voting Libertarian myself," said Brandon Swalley, who is involved in Republican politics in the state of Washington, and is a director of the Free Republic Network (search), a national conservative activist group.
"Everyone I know who is conservative is voting for George Bush," she said, adding that Libertarians tend to have different views on abortion and war than most conservatives, who have more in common with Bush Republicans.
"They generally respect Bush and they agree with him on most issues," she said.
The Republican National Committee (search) says it too isn’t worried about Badnarik being a spoiler for the president. "If [Libertarians] are trying to appeal to Republican voters, I don’t see it as an effective strategy. They’re already solidly behind the president," said RNC Spokeswoman Kristine Iverson.
In 2000, Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne earned 382,892 votes. In 1996, Browne won 485,798 votes. The Libertarians’ most successful campaign was in 1980, when Ed Clark and running mate David Koch won 921,199 votes.
"I am determined to shatter that million-vote mark, and perhaps change the shape of politics, to have people talk more about the Constitution, more about the Bill of Rights (search)," said Badnarik, who is running with vice presidential candidate Richard Campagna, an Iowa attorney.
Political analysts say even if the presidency is out of reach for Badnarik, he still can gain traction among voters dissatisfied with the growing size of government.
There is "a lot of unrest in the conservative-Libertarian movement of the Republican Party," said Chuck Muth, a former director of the American Conservative Union (search) and founder of Citizen Outreach (search). "In that regard, Badnarik has the opportunity to reach out to people."
Mark Gailley, a Kentucky Libertarian running for the U.S. Congress from the 6th District, agreed that the climate was ripe for picking up disgruntled Republicans.
"I think a lot of conservatives have had their heads in the sand and it might be getting wet down there," he said.
Badnarik was nominated over Memorial Day weekend in an old-style political convention in which three candidates slugged it out until the Texas-based Badnarik pulled out a surprise win. Many thought the nomination would go to either flamboyant talk show host Gary Nolan (search) or former Hollywood producer Aaron Russo (search). Those candidates brought more recognizable personality to the ticket, but Badnarik carried the debates.
"He was really warm and energetic. He was likeable and he was obviously very knowledgeable about Libertarian principles and the notion of limited government," George Getz, spokesman for the national Libertarian Party, said of Badnarik’s performance. "He had the answers that really struck a chord."
Party members are now rallying in hopes that Badnarik will be the best person to appeal to new voters.
"Frankly, a lot of Americans might pull for this underdog if they have a chance to hear his message," Getz said, adding that Badnarik really won over delegates during the debates.
Libertarians have about 600 members in local and state office today. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is considered one of them, though he won his seat on the Republican Party label. Currently, the party is organized in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia, as well as on many college campuses.
Former candidate Browne said the two-party system is entirely stacked against third party candidates, from biased ballot access laws to the amount of money candidates must raise to compete. But with growing distrust of the Bush administration, Badnarik does have a unique opportunity to break down barriers, he said.
"The goal is to get the party label out there, this helps pave the way for future and possible presidential candidates, and perhaps local candidates who don’t get the kind of exposure that other candidates do," he said.
However, Browne sounded a note of caution. "If the race is close between Bush and Kerry in November, those who were thinking of deserting the Republican Party won't be doing so at the last minute." Browne added that he believes he was more successful in 1996 than in 2000 because President Clinton was able to beat Republican Sen. Robert Dole handily.
Nevertheless, Gailley said the party's job in the ensuing weeks is to convince people they won’t be tossing away their vote if they go Libertarian.
"I think we certainly have a very good chance of controlling the margin of difference and swaying the voters in our favor, if not doing better than that," he said.