If Republicans are worried about the third-party presidential candidacy of former GOP Congressman Bob Barr and the possibility that he could win enough votes to affect the outcome in several states, they aren't showing it.
At present there are no plans to follow the time-honored method of dealing with pesky third-party candidates by seeking to knock Barr off various state ballots. Indeed, when asked for comment about the Barr campaign, John McCain's campaign flat out declined to offer any at all. Underscoring that indifferent approach, the Republican National Committee offered this response when asked about the former conservative congressman from Georgia.
"We're confident that McCain's record of putting the country before politics will appeal to voters of all walks of life," said Amber Wilkerson, an RNC spokesperson. "Right now we're focused on John McCain's message."
The GOP strategy toward the Libertarian Party nominee presents a stark contrast to 2004, when Democrats aggressively challenged left-leaning Independent candidate Ralph Nader's ballot petitions in order to remove him from the ballot in places where he might siphon critical votes from nominee John Kerry.
Back then, Democrats were intent on avoiding a repeat of the 2000 presidential election, when Nader, running that year as the Green Party nominee, was widely-believed to have cost Al Gore the presidency by winning three percent of the nationwide vote.
Democrats weren't successful in torpedoing Nader's bid in all of the 18 states where they challenged his candidate petitions in 2004, but they managed to knock him off the ballot in some key states, including Pennsylvania, where Kerry ultimately won a narrow 51 percent to 48 percent win over President George W. Bush.
At the moment, however, there is little indication that Republicans will pursue a similar tactic against Barr, even in the states where a strong Barr showing seems most likely to hurt McCain.
"At this point we haven't looked into it," said Scott Darnell, a spokesman for the Republican Party in New Mexico, a battleground state decided by just 6,000 votes in 2004. "We're very confident that Senator McCain is going to do well in New Mexico regardless of who is on the ballot."
In New Hampshire, where less than 9,300 votes decided the state in 2004, the state Republican Party expressed skepticism that Barr would even make the ballot. "I'm not aware of any Barr activists or supporters in the state of New Hampshire," said Fergus Cullen, chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "I haven't heard reports of anyone gathering signatures."
As third parties go, the Libertarian Party has done a solid job of getting its presidential candidate on the ballot nationwide in recent years. The Libertarian nominee has appeared on the ballot in 48 of the 50 states since 1988, and the party has qualified for ballot lines in 31 states this year-including Georgia, where Barr was elected to four terms from a suburban Atlanta House seat. The Barr campaign has met filing deadlines in every state so far and again expects to be on the ballot in at least 48 states.
The only states where the party anticipates trouble are Oklahoma and West Virginia, and Barr will likely sue for access in Oklahoma, according to Richard Winger, a ballot access expert who is advising the Barr campaign.
Winger says that Republicans have never pushed minor party presidential candidates off the ballot in the past and he is hopeful that tradition will continue. "The Republican party never has gone to court to keep any presidential candidate off the ballot," he noted.
Still, that could change this year if Barr gathers steam.
In Alaska, a state with a strong libertarian streak, state GOP chairman Randy Ruedrich said he hasn't seen any indications of support for Barr and doesn't consider him to be a threat. But Ruedrich didn't rule out challenging Barr's candidate petitions at a later date-a position also taken by New Hampshire's Cullen.
"Anything is possible but at this time we have not pursued any actions," Ruedrich said.
Nick Ayers, a former campaign manager for Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue who currently serves as executive director of the Republican Governors Association, also dismissed Barr as a potential threat, but noted that it made sense to investigate the legitimacy of Barr's ballot signatures wherever possible.
"I think it's the right thing for the party to do to clarify it anyway," Ayers said.
If McCain's campaign, or anyone acting on his behalf, does challenge Barr's ballot access, Barr's campaign believes they would have a powerful argument that the Republican would be acting hypocritically and they are optimistic he will not do so for that reason.
"I remember when McCain was locked out of the New York ballot in the 2000 primary," said Russell Verney, Barr's campaign manager. "He eventually sued the state and said the people deserved a choice. I don't think he'll go back on his word and will tell his activists to refrain from denying people a choice."
By Ben Adler