Let us stipulate that it's impossible in June to prognosticate about an election in November. We can't know what is yet to happen, what unforeseen events may intrude, or what the candidates might do to help or hinder their prospects. In the immortal words of that stellar war planner Donald Rumsfeld, seemingly uttered as jazz poetry on Feb. 12, 2002, "There are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns. The ones we don't know we don't know."
One of those known unknowns is a humorless little guy with pursed lips and mustache who looks like a high school principal in a '30s movie. That would be Bob Barr, the ex-Georgia congressman, an erstwhile conservative Republican who is running this November as the Libertarian party's presidential candidate.
Barr has been getting a lot of buzz lately, deservedly so, because he threatens to become a big headache for the John McCain campaign. McCain has yet to unite and galvanize the GOP's conservative base, and Barr conceivably could draw enough protest votes to imperil McCain's victory prospects in at least three red states.
Granted, this guy is not an ideal protest vehicle. He's akin to a '94 Chevy with a rebuilt engine and patched tires. After eight years in Congress, Barr was squeezed out of his House seat in 2002 when his district was redrawn, and he signed on to the Libertarian party and its principles (small government, low taxes) only two years ago. He is notoriously charisma-challenged, twice divorced, and a past champion of moral issues despite the fact that he was once photographed licking whipped cream from a woman's breasts. (It was a charity event to raise money for leukemia research, he explained at the time.)
Barr won the Libertarian party nomination late last month, but it took him six ballots to do it. Moreover, the Libertarian party has never drawn more than 1.1 percent of the national vote in any presidential election. Four years ago, the Libertarian presidential nominee garnered .32 percent of the national vote. It's fair to ask why life should be different this time around.
Yet, in a handful of states crucial to McCain's candidacy, Barr could be the beneficiary of a political mood that bears no resemblance to 2004.
During the past four years, a large number of conservatives - not a majority, but enough to make a difference in a close election - have become disgusted with the Republican party. Many are small-government adherents who dislike the high budget deficits of the Bush era. They are well that the GOP Congress, with nary a single veto from President Bush, racked up spending to heights unseen since the Democratic Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson. As commentator Jonah Goldberg complained, back in February 2006, when the GOP was still in power on Capitol Hill, Bush and his Congress were "spending money like a pimp with a week to live."
These conservatives know that the GOP enacted the law that puts Washington into the classroom (No Child Left Behind); the '05 highway law that stands as the most lavish public-works measure in history; and the prescription drug-benefit law that stands as the largest-ever expansion of the Medicare and Medicaid programs. McCain generally inveighs against big-government expansion - in 2003 he voted against the drug-benefit law - but he has other handicaps. His staunch support for the Iraq war is a problem for a lot of small-government conservatives who dislike "nation-building" and view with skepticism the notion that America can export democracy.
Barr speaks to those concerns. And, to gauge the strength of those concerns, simply consider the recent Ron Paul boomlet. The libertarian-minded GOP congressman raised $35 million for his Republican candidacy, and drew double-digit support in a number of GOP primaries (including Pennsylvania). That constituency is real.
To wreak havoc with McCain, Barr need only wage asymmetric warfare - just as Ralph Nader did with Al Gore on election day 2000, luring away enough votes in one state (97,488 in Florida) to plunge the race into overtime. If McCain continues to be plagued by an ill-galvanized conservative base, the states to watch in November could be Georgia, Colorado, and Nevada.
In most contemporary presidential elections, all three have been red states. For McCain, however, the perfect storm would look something like this:
Barr, the Georgia home boy, bleeds away a sizeable number of conservative votes in that state - while Barack Obama ratchets up the Democratic base vote with an unprecented turnout among African-American voters. If Obama squeaks through in deep-South Georgia - the ninth-largest state, with 15 electoral votes - it's game over for the GOP on the national map.
Such a scenario might sound far-fetched, but it's noteworthy that Obama is currently running his first national TV ad ("The Country I Love") in Georgia. The ad is showing up in only 18 states, yet ostensibly red Georgia made the cut. He is reportedly committing 300 staffers and volunteers to Georgia. That action, combined with the Barr factor, might well force McCain to put precious resources into a state that, normally, McCain would prefer to view as a cinch win.
Indeed, a new poll signals the potential Barr threat. A Georgia firm, InsiderAdvantage, reported the other day that McCain and Obama are locked in a virtual tie (44 percent for the former, 43 percent for the latter), with Barr clocking in at six percent. The firm's CEO, Matt Towery, a former Republican lawmaker, concluded that Georgia "will remain a major new battleground state through November." Georgia, he said, "cannot be presumed to vote Republican in 2008."
Barr's other potential hot spots are in the mountain states, where the libertarian ethos is strong, where small-government conservatives reside in abundance. Colorado has been trending blue at the state level, and some election experts believe that Obama could snatch it away from McCain if Barr draws as little as two percent of the vote. The same scenario is possible in normally red Nevada, where the latest polls show McCain up by only two points over Obama - although, in these states, Barr's prospects might depend on whether Ron Paul's libertarian-minded followers decide to help him out. Count that as one of the unknown unknowns.
So, what about Bob? Will McCain view him as a serious threat? Naturally, McCain's people currently say no. But watch what they do, not what they say. If they take any action to try to keep Barr off the ballot in key states - as the Democrats did with Nader in 2004 - then we can count that as one of the known knowns in this tumultuous election season.
Speaking of unknown unknowns, there's always that possibility of another terrorist strike on U.S. soil, which McCain strategist/Washington lobbyist Charlie Black views as a marvelous political opportunity for his candidate. (Black to Fortune magazine: "Certainly it would be a big advantage to him.")
McCain felt compelled yesterday to denounce that burst of Rovian rhetoric, and Black felt compelled yesterday to eat crow ("I deeply regret the comments, they were inappropriate").
In other words, it was yet another news cycle when the McCain camp stepped on its own intended message of the day (candidate proposes a prize for the development of a new car battery that reduces dependence on foreign oil), and was forced instead to clean up its own mess.
Ralph Nader once insisted to me that he was merely the last banana peel that upended Gore, after the candidate had slipped on plenty of his own. Could Bob Barr be the same for McCain?