DENVER -- Midway through Sunday's first round of balloting for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination, a worried John LaBeaume muttered, "It's like Badnarik all over again."
LaBeaume, an LP delegate from the District of Columbia and a supporter of former Rep. Bob Barr's campaign, was tallying up the state-by-state presidential votes and remembering his party's 2004 convention in Atlanta.
The 2004 Libertarian convention rejected a media-savvy candidate -- Hollywood executive Aaron Russo, who led in the first two rounds of voting -- and delivered a third-ballot win for software engineer Michael Badnarik.
Badnarik went on to garner just 0.32 percent of the vote in November, a disappointing result that left many Libertarians dejected, feeling their party was doomed to obscurity.
On the first ballot this year at the Denver Sheraton, it seemed to LaBeaume that the LP was headed for deja vu all over again. The convention would reject the candidate with mainstream appeal in favor of a relative unknown who could be safely ignored by the press.
THAT NIGHTMARE SCENARIO was averted when Barr won on the sixth ballot Sunday. The ex-Republican from Georgia finished with 324 votes to 276 for longtime LP activist Mary Ruwart.
His nomination was secured with the help of rival candidate Wayne Allyn Root, who endorsed Barr after being eliminated in the fifth round of balloting. A high-energy Las Vegas oddsmaker, Root was subsequently nominated for vice president, producing what Barr called "the strongest ticket in the history of the Libertarian Party."
Whether that ticket can exceed the LP's past performance -- the party's presidential nominee has never topped a million votes -- remains to be seen, but Barr says Libertarians have the opportunity this year to do more than play the "spoiler" role in which many commentators have cast his campaign.
"We are not in this race just to send a message, although a very important message will be sent," Barr told delegates in his acceptance speech Sunday. "This is a campaign that will win."
An outright victory for the LP is a long shot so remote that even Root probably couldn't calculate the astronomical odds against it. But the possibility that the party could score its best-ever November showing is very real, as demonstrated by the strong showing in the Republican presidential primaries by Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
PAUL, WHO WAS the LP's presidential nominee in 1988, raised more than $20 million this year for his anti-war, limited-government candidacy in the GOP. Barr calls Paul "a very good friend," and says his former House colleague has been an inspiration to Libertarians.
"What Ron Paul has done is brought to light the manner in which libertarian ideas, the libertarian philosophy, are very much a part of the political fabric of the country," Barr said at a media breakfast Saturday. "He's moved it from the back of the room to the front of the room."
Barr sees Paul supporters as a bloc of independent voters who are unlikely to support either the Republican or Democratic nominee in November.
"It's very difficult to imagine the circumstance under which people that had come out and supported Ron Paul, voted for Ron Paul, would switch their allegiance to Senator Obama or Senator McCain. Their natural home would be Bob Barr as the Libertarian candidate," Barr said, speaking of himself in the third person.
BECOMING THE LP candidate was a major challenge for Barr, who only joined the Libertarians two years ago and didn't officially declare his presidential candidacy until just ten days before the convention started.
Barr's status as a latecomer and his conservative record during four terms in Congress fueled opposition from many hard-core Libertarians, who rallied around Ruwart and other presidential hopefuls, including California marijuana activist Steve Kubby, Massachusetts physicist George Phillies, and Internet entrepreneur Michael Jingozian.
Those candidates had spent months campaigning for the LP nomination, as had Root. An ex-Republican -- he quit the party in 2006 after the GOP-controlled Congress passed a law banning online gambling -- Root has a telegenic presence that had made him an early favorite of the Libertarian Party's Reform Caucus.
The differences between the Reform Caucus and other Libertarians are less ideological than strategic, as one Barr supporter explained during the Denver convention. "I'm not sure if [Barr's opponents in the LP] appreciate the fact that we actually have a candidate who can get elected because he's been elected, as opposed to someone who wants to run just to get attention," said David Chastain, a delegate from Georgia. "I think that's where we're really split, is you have people who want to be the Libertarian Party of education and some of us want to be the Libertarian Party of making political progress."
The late entry of Barr threatened to divide the votes of pragmatists who had previously been united behind Root. The LP presidential contest got another wild card when former Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska announced in April that he, too, would seek the Libertarian nomination.
AS IT PLAYED out in Sunday's voting, Barr barely led on the first ballot, with 153 votes to Ruwart's 152, with Root trailing at 123 and Gravel at 71. Jingozian was eliminated in the first round and endorsed Gravel (to the consternation of Ruwart, who'd lent support to Jingozian to help him qualify for Saturday night's televised debate).
Barr's one-vote lead on the first ballot caused "a lot of angst," one of his floor leaders said afterwards. Or, as one of his Alabama supporters said in the heat of the moment, "Oh, God, it's a dogfight."
Barr's backers cheered when the second-ballot results were announced, and he had increased his lead to 16 votes, but he and Ruwart were tied on the third and fourth ballots.
Kubby, Phillies and Gravel had been eliminated before the fifth ballot, when Ruwart pulled ahead 229 to 223 over Barr. That lead, however, was illusory.
Root was eliminated by his third-place finish (165 votes), and in his concession speech told his supporters, "I would like to be part of a Barr-Root ticket in 2008."
That some 50 of Root's delegates voted for Ruwart on the sixth and decisive ballot indicates the depth of internal hostility to Barr among some LP regulars. Yet the hard-fought win was enough for Barr, and apparently satisfied LP donors, who contributed a record $64,000 at the party's presidential banquet Sunday evening -- more than twice the amount of donations at the 2004 Atlanta convention.
AT A PRIVATE reception later Sunday night, Barr campaign manager Russ Verney solicited donations from delegates and the candidate gave a short speech mentioning $40 million as his fundraising target.
Verney managed Ross Perot's 1992 and '96 presidential campaigns, and it remains to be seen whether Barr's campaign can have a Perot-like impact in 2008. Also unknown is whether Barr can get the kind of online fundraising and grassroots support that sparked the Ron Paul campaign.
Just surviving the "dogfight" of the Libertarian convention was a major victory for Barr supporters like Jennifer Chambrin, a Georgia delegate who did a little dance on the sidewalk outside the Sheraton after Sunday's voting was done.
"We won! We won! We won!" Chambrin said in a singsong voice, then reflected: "Can you imagine after all this, if we had come this far and lost?"
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