It's the biggest night of the year for Georgia Libertarians. Daniel Adams, the state party chairman, seems energized and a bit anxious as he crisscrosses the room greeting guests. In a few minutes, the Libertarian Party's 2008 presidential nominee is expected to arrive as the guest of honor, and Adams wants his group's chief fundraising banquet to exceed everyone's expectations.
Compared with most big-city political confabs, however, this one feels a bit, well, small-time. The Dunwoody hotel setting is nice enough, but the ballroom space is so cavernous it makes the modest crowd appear even smaller. The ill-fitting blazers and mismatched ties worn by some guests suggest a blue-collar demographic that's a far cry from the cliques of deep-pocketed lawyers and lobbyists who typically haunt such events. Then there are the guys who stand out because of their long hair or eccentric appearance, such as an older man wearing a black leather jacket and a black T-shirt dotted with white skulls.
It's no stretch to imagine that the largely male, suburban, middle-aged, outsiderish gathering of white folks wouldn't feel out of place at Dragon*Con. Which is fitting, since Dragon*Con founder Ed Kramer is among the attendees, dressed head-to-toe in black and wheeling about on an electric scooter.
When former Congressman Bob Barr and wife Jeri arrive at the reception, there's no public-address announcement, no Secret Service detail and no sudden crush of well-wishers seeking face time with the would-be president. Most of the people here have met Barr before and are content to wait as he makes his way around the room exchanging pleasantries, shaking hands and posing for photographs. The only TV cameraman at the event snags a quickie interview with the presidential candidate, then heads for the door.
The dinner itself begins a few minutes late. Adams explains excitedly that more chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd. "I think we've got 100 people here," he enthuses.
As political parties go, the Libertarians can still seem painfully small potatoes. But in Barr, they – and a contingent of observers – believe they've got a candidate who might actually have an impact. The tight presidential race certainly could make votes for a third-party candidate decisive in any of a dozen or so battleground states – much as Ralph Nader's presence on the ballot in 2000 cost Al Gore Florida.
This year, even here in Georgia, strategists with the two major parties are keeping an eye on Barr's poll numbers for signs that he's siphoning votes away from Republican John McCain. If he takes away enough of them, Democrats say, he could put the state in their candidate's column for the first time since 1992.
Any discussion of Georgia's potential as a swing state is still largely academic with the election nearly two months away, and recent polls indicate the likelihood is shrinking. But veteran politicos acknowledge the possibility of – to employ a neo-cliché – a perfect storm in which new voter registration, Democratic soft-money campaigning and a mini-surge in Libertarian votes could conspire to tip our state to Barack Obama. If that turned out to be the case, though, Obama would likely be having a big night elsewhere, picking up electoral votes in other states where Barr is even more likely to make a difference.
Put simply, could arch-conservative Bob Barr actually have a hand in helping the Democrats win in November?
To paraphrase a well-worn campaign slogan: Yes he can.
Barr's conversion to the Libertarian Party since leaving Congress has come as little surprise even to longtime GOP colleagues. Those who know him well say he's always been a conservative first and Republican second. His remaining loyalty faded away after feeling his party had stabbed him in the back.
"Bob's always been independent-minded," says John Watson, a former Barr staffer who later served as Gov. Sonny Perdue's chief of staff. "He's never marched to a party platform."
In fact, Barr has always been something of a square peg. Born in Iowa, he grew up following his civil engineer father to exotic locations like Malaysia, Pakistan, Baghdad and Panama, finally graduating from high school in Tehran. After earning a law degree at Georgetown, he spent most of the '70s at the CIA before settling in Marietta, where he became a defense attorney and got involved in Republican politics.
Plucked from obscurity when Ronald Reagan appointed him U.S. attorney in 1986, Barr soon made a name for himself by prosecuting members of the Medellin drug cartel and sending Pat Swindall, an evangelical Republican congressman from DeKalb, to prison for a year on a perjury rap.
He burnished his conservative credentials with two years as president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation (the group that later successfully sued to have ex-President Bill Clinton's law license suspended) before launching himself into electoral politics.
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