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The difficulty for a third-party candidate to win an election in Georgia cannot be overstated.
The sole officeholder in the state who identifies as a Libertarian is a member of the Johns Creek City Council – and her post is officially nonpartisan. The party has managed to meet Georgia's strict ballot-access requirements only by consistently notching a few percentage points in little-watched Public Service Commission races. Historically, a vote for the Libertarian has been a protest vote, regardless of whose name is on the ballot.
And yet Libertarians have proved capable of influencing some high-profile contests. The most famous example was the 1992 Senate race, when Libertarian Jim Hudson's 3 percent showing forced Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler into a runoff, in which he was upset by Republican Paul Coverdell. (A bit of trivia: Coverdell reached the general election that year by narrowly defeating a certain former U.S. attorney named Bob Barr.)
Now many Libertarians hope Barr can do something similar in the race for president.
"Barr has more of a national following than any candidate we've ever had," says Jack Cashin, Georgia's Libertarian candidate for U.S. senate in 1996 and governor in 1998. In both races, Cashin notched a relatively impressive 4 percent.
"I think here in Georgia, Barr could get 7 or 8 percent, which could throw the race to Obama – and I hope it does," adds Cashin, who says the Bush years have left him thoroughly disillusioned with Republican rule.
Barr himself dismisses any suggestion that he could be a spoiler for the GOP, insisting that he's likely to snatch votes equally from both major parties. But no one else – on either side of the aisle – seems to see it that way.
"Any votes Barr gets will come at the expense of John McCain," predicts Buddy Darden, the Democratic congressman Barr unseated in 1994.
Says Republican Chuck Clay: "People who identify as independents are the fastest-growing group in American politics. Anyone with the record of a Bob Barr is going to cause angst among Republicans."
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock says Barr could have a big impact if the race stays tight through Election Day.
"Increasingly, it looks like Georgia isn't in play, but in a close state – and there are a number of those now – Bob Barr could affect the outcome," Bullock says. "To the extent that he gets votes, they'll come from John McCain. So, if we had a situation like we had in Florida in 2000, he could end up costing McCain the White House."
Even former Gov. Barnes gives props to Barr: "There are many things about what I call the 'new and refined Bob Barr' that appeal to me, such as his position on government surveillance, and which could resonate with Middle Georgia.
"If Bob gets 6 or 7 percent, and certainly if he gets 8 or 9 percent, he could give Georgia to Obama," Barnes says.
The question, of course, is whether Barr can capture that much of the vote. As of this writing, some seven weeks out from the election, Georgia's potential as a swing state seems to be dimming, but it hinges on a host of unknowns in a race that changes almost daily.
One obvious factor would be Obama's commitment of campaign resources in Georgia. Last week, the New York Times reported that the Democratic nominee had pulled his ads from Georgia airwaves. Most recently, the campaign confirmed it had shifted some workers from Georgia to North Carolina.
Another unknown is the effectiveness of the Obama campaign in registering new voters. With dozens of offices scattered around the state, and a wildly optimistic goal of adding 400,000 new Georgia voters to the polls, the campaign could be preparing to pull the rug out from under the GOP – but we likely won't know until Election Day.
Then there's the Senate candidacy of former state Rep. Jim Martin, who was recruited by national Democrats to take on unpopular GOP incumbent Saxby Chambliss. If the well-funded Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee decides to spend millions in soft money to help defeat Chambliss, the impending advertising blitz would likely boost all Democratic candidates. The potential – if improbable – result could be a rare "trickle-up" effect in which a Senate campaign actually helps garner more votes for a presidential candidate.
In the spring, soon after his nomination, polls showed the former congressman as high as 8 percent. More recently, however, Georgia seems to be turning redder, with McCain's poll numbers surging and Barr's dropping.
But there are still a number of battleground states where Barr is more likely to play a spoiler's role. His poll numbers currently hover a little above 2 percent nationally, but in Libertarian-friendly New Hampshire, where McCain and Obama are within a point of each other, an August Zogby poll put Barr at 11 percent. Polls suggest the two major-party nominees are virtually tied in Nevada, Colorado and Virginia, where Barr has polled between 5 percent and 10 percent.
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