BURLINGTON, N.C. -- No casual visitor to the La Quinta Inn on Maple Avenue would have suspected that anything politically significant was happening inside Saturday. Only the bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lot hinted that the hotel was hosting the state convention of the Libertarian Party of North Carolina (LPNC).
"Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what you can do for yourself," declared a sticker on a green sedan. "Government: Causing more violence than it prevents since 10,000 B.C.," said one sticker on a silver hatchback that also bore another sticker with four letters: "RKBA" -- an acronym for the Second Amendment phrase "right to keep and bear arms."
These are not merely bumper-sticker sentiments for Libertarians. At least one delegate was packing heat inside the hotel conference room where the convention met. Richard Evey's Ruger .357 Magnum was safely holstered on his belt, but it was fully loaded with hollow-point bullets. Evey joked that he is the party's own one-man Department of Homeland Security.
Such a gathering would seem a friendly environment for former Rep. Bob Barr, a board member of the National Rifle Association who served for more than a year as a regional representative to the Libertarian National Committee. He came to address the North Carolina convention and pitch his "exploratory" campaign for the party's presidential nomination.
Invoking the name of Ayn Rand, emphasizing "the importance of the individual," and denouncing government's tendency toward "one-size-fits-all" policies, Barr told the three dozen attendees, "The Libertarian Party is certainly not a one-size-fits all party, because freedom itself is not one-size-fits-all."
Barr said that "in the heart of every American beats the heart of a Libertarian" and outlined a strategy for party growth by appealing to mainstream interests.
"Every American is libertarian about something," he said. "There is something in their lives -- whether it's in their own personal preferences at home, whether it is in the way they educate their children, whether it is in the way they express their religious and political ideas, whether it is how they run their business -- every American is libertarian about something....One of the things we need to remind ourselves to do is to tap into that libertarian streak...that resides in the heart and the mind of every single American, and bring it out."
The delegates applauded at the end of Barr's speech, but afterwards it was clear that many of those attending the two-day state convention still viewed the Republican-turned-Libertarian with a good deal of skepticism. When a presidential preference straw poll was taken the next day, Barr got only one vote, compared to 17 for longtime LP activist Mary Ruwart, three for Massachusetts physicist George Phillies and two for Las Vegas oddsmaker Wayne Allen Root. (Ruwart is something of a "favorite daughter" among Libertarians in North Carolina, where she lived for four years before moving to Texas last year.)
Like Barr, ex-Democrat Mike Gravel got just one vote in the straw poll. The former Alaska senator also addressed the LPNC convention Saturday, delivering a speech in which he repudiated the Constitution, saying the Framers "cut a deal with the Devil for slavery." Gravel told the Libertarians he had "lost faith in representative government" and called for direct democracy by ballot initiative -- too much for one college student in attendance.
"I was sort of apprehensive about Bob Barr," the 23-year-old said later, "but I left the room when Mike Gravel started talking about losing faith in representative government."
SINCE BARR ANNOUNCED the formation of his exploratory committee April 5 at a Libertarian conference in Kansas City, his potential impact on the presidential race has been widely discussed as if his LP nomination were a certainty. "Come November, Barr conceivably could be to John McCain what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore in 2000 -- ruinous," George F. Will wrote in his latest Newsweek column.
However, the fact that Barr could finish in a straw-poll tie with Gravel -- who only announced his conversion to the LP two weeks ago -- is one indication that Barr's nomination is by no means a fait accompli.
Barr's status as a former member of Congress and his high profile in the media -- he even had a cameo role in the comedy film Borat -- might normally be considered decisive advantages against lesser-known candidates who, except for Gravel, have never held elective office. But when Libertarians convene their national convention Memorial Day weekend in Denver, the selection of their presidential nominee will be up to more than 900 delegates who may disregard those advantages. The LP doesn't have a presidential primary system like the major parties do, and the nomination will be decided on the convention floor.
The Ron Paul stickers adorning the bumpers of several cars in the La Quinta Inn parking lot Saturday were one reminder of the quirky history of LP conventions. Like Barr, Paul was a former Republican congressman in 1988 when he ran for president as a Libertarian, but he got the party's nomination only after waging a tough battle to edge Native American activist Russell Means at the convention.
Although one online poll of Libertarians showed Barr as a narrow favorite (with 30 percent, compared to 22 percent for Root and 17 percent for Ruwart), it is impossible to predict who will emerge May 26 as the LP's nominee. Barr acknowledges that he would face a tough fight for the nomination, and notes that he's still not an official candidate.
"Whether it's the Republican Party, Democratic Party or Libertarian Party, anybody that goes into a party nominating process viewing it as a sure thing is almost bound to recognize that they're surely going to lose," he said in an interview after his LPNC speech. "You cannot, and I do not, take it as a sure thing. I feel very confident that if I do become a candidate, that I will win the party's nomination, but I do not take it for granted."
WHETHER OR NOT he is the LP's presidential nominee, Barr remains committed to expanding the party's reach and political viability.
"The Libertarian Party has a tremendous advantage, because they have the opportunity to define themselves," he said, explaining that LP Chairman Bill Redpath and Executive Director Shane Cory share his concern for recruiting and training candidates who will talk "about issues that matter to families," including economic and education issues. "I see that happening, and I hope it can continue, because if it doesn't happen, the party's going to be relegated to incidental status, as best."
Relegating the LP to incidental status is something Republican leaders clearly hope to do. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich last week was dismissive of the potential impact of a Barr candidacy, saying that Americans in 2008 are not "really fed up with Washington" as they were in 1992 when Ross Perot's third-party presidential bid helped derail George H.W. Bush's re-election.
Gingrich's analysis "overlooks the similarities between the situation when Ross Perot ran and currently, which I think are profound," Barr said. "The implication is people are not dissatisfied with government. I would beg to differ with the former Speaker. People are very dissatisfied with government and they're particularly dissatisfied with the Republican Party, and I think would welcome the opportunity for a real alternative even more so now than when Ross Perot ran."