CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
While Democrats fret over the possibility of Ralph Nader causing them to lose another election by stealing votes on the left, President Bush may face an even greater third-party threat from the right wing. The Libertarian Party nominee could cost Mr. Bush his job in 2004.
With conservatives upset over the ballooning size of the federal government under a Republican White House and Congress – and a portion of the political right having opposed the war in Iraq from the outset or else dismayed at how it's being handled – the Libertarian nominee may do for Democrats in 2004 what Nader did for Republicans in 2000.
It is a hypothesis not yet made in the mainstream media. But interviews with third-party experts and activists across the country, as well as recent political patterns, illustrate that there could be a conservative rear-guard political attack against President Bush.
Libertarians will be on at least 49 state ballots, several more than the most optimistic expectations of Nader. While Democrats rally around their nominee, the base of the Republican Party is showing some signs of fragmentation.
"I think [the Bush campaign] should be concerned. I don't know how concerned," said Don Devine, vice chairman of the American Conservative Union and a longtime GOP insider. "They need to work on it and I think they know they need to work on it."
Grover Norquist, president of the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, says "there is a strong strain of Libertarian in the Republican Party." He agrees with Devine that the Republicans should be paying attention to the Libertarian candidate, but says it is hard to gauge this early if the nominee will siphon many votes from Mr. Bush.
"I don't expect it to happen but it's possible," Devine adds. "A smart Republican campaign has to keep that in mind."
But so far, indications are that the Bush-Cheney campaign is not keeping it in mind. A senior adviser to the campaign, who did no want his name used so he could speak more frankly, said there was no concern in the campaign.
"None, none," the adviser emphasized. "[Mr. Bush is] as strong as Ronald Reagan was in 1984."
However, historians point out that Mr. Bush is no Mr. Reagan. The Cold War had the effect of unifying the Republicans like little else. Even the dramatic deficit increases of the time, largely due to defense spending, were seen as necessary in the fight to end communism.
And President Reagan did not have an unstable occupation on his hands. Nor did he face nearly as united a Democratic Party as exists today. The result: some conservatives are questioning the voluminous spending for the war in Iraq.
"There is some unrest, there is some uneasiness, there is some unhappiness," said presidential historian Lee Edwards of the conservative Heritage Foundation, regarding the political right today.
Edwards emphasized that this frustration is not as rampant as when former President George H.W. Bush reneged on his "no new taxes" pledge.
Mr. Bush has recently made an increased effort to speak to conservative groups and meet with conservative congressmen. Whether the efforts are enough is unclear. But, Edwards added, the Bush-Cheney campaign should still "watch out."
"The Libertarians will impact Republicans more than Nader will impact Democrats," said Lawrence Jacobs, the director of the 2004 Elections Project for the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota and possibly the nation's preeminent expert on third-party politics.
In the key battleground state of Wisconsin, the 2002 Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Ed Thompson garnered about 185,000 votes, a startling 10.5 percent. The new governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, won the state by about 75,000 votes.
"I had the best showing of any Libertarian ever, except one candidate in Alaska," said a proud Thompson, who is the maverick brother of former Wisconsin governor and now Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Libertarians are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. They are against the war in Iraq, as well as deficits and big-government bills like the recent Medicare legislation. They are against any form of gun control. But they also support gay rights, abortion rights and less stringent drug laws.
In the 2000 presidential election, Nader won 94,070 votes in Wisconsin. Al Gore barely won the state, holding off Mr. Bush by just 5,708 votes.
"The [Libertarian nominee] could be every bit as threatening to the Republicans as Nader is to the Democrats in Wisconsin," Thompson said. "But I think to do that it is personality based."
The two personalities most likely to be nominated at next week's Libertarian convention in Atlanta include Gary Nolan, a talk-radio host and longtime Libertarian, and Aaron Russo, a successful Hollywood producer who ran a strong gubernatorial campaign in Nevada in 1998.
"Their biggest chunk of vulnerable voters are the fiscal conservatives and I know they are looking for a place to bail," Nolan said of the Bush campaign.
"What used to happen is we had to deal with a wasted vote for Republicans. They'd say, 'Well I agree with you and I actually like you better than Bob Dole or George Bush, but if I vote for you that's a vote less for Bush and the Democrats are going to get in and they are going to spend like drunken sailors,'" said Nolan, considered the favorite to win the nomination. "But now Republicans are spending like drunken sailors."
In an opinion piece this week in the Chicago Sun-Times, conservative columnist Robert Novak described President Bush's conservative base as "bothered." A recent Zogby Poll also found that almost 20 percent of Republicans still have not committed their vote to Mr. Bush.
"I think [fiscal conservatives] don't believe that [Mr. Bush] has really done anything to restrain the growth of government," Novak said in an interview. "We are talking about a very small number of people. It becomes important only for [Mr. Bush] in a very close election where every vote counts."
Democrats are as united as they have been in recent political history, Novak said. "No question about it in my opinion." He agreed that Democrats have heeded a lesson that Republicans have not, because they lost the razor-tight election of 2000.
Senate and gubernatorial races from 1998 to 2002 indicate that Libertarians have repeatedly swung elections in the Democrats' favor.
For example, in the 2002 governor's race in the swing state of Oregon, Libertarian Tom Cox pulled in 57,760 votes to help Democrat Theodore Kulongoski eke out a 35,000 vote win over Republican Kevin Mannix.
In the 1998 Nevada U.S. Senate race, Democrat Harry Reid won by 401 votes over Republican John Ensign. Libertarian Michael Cloud earned 8,129 votes.
The question in this year's presidential race, where the country appears to be split right down the middle between Democrats and Republicans, is: Can any third-party candidate make a difference?
Exit polling and ballot totals show that if Ralph Nader had not been on the ballot in 2000 in either New Hampshire or Florida, former Vice President Al Gore would have won the election over Mr. Bush.
But is 2004 different?
"I believe many fewer will vote for Nader this time, though it still could be enough to make the difference," said Charles Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Nader's endorsement this year by the Reform Party and his efforts to work with presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry has some political analysts convinced that his support may be more equally distributed between the right and left than in 2000.
Libertarians are expected to bring in mostly conservative votes.
"I may be very wrong but I would be absolutely stunned if [the Libertarians] turned into anything of any consequence," said Cook.
Cook said this is because "the American people overwhelmingly believe that there are big differences" between the major parties this year. But he also pointed out "the race will be close."
In a close race, Libertarians have learned from Nader, it only takes one state to change the course of the nation. Such influence translates to political weight in Washington.
"I think there is no question the Bush campaign should be concerned," said Libertarian candidate Russo, who placed a surprising second in 1998 in the four-way Republican gubernatorial primary in Nevada.
In 2004, Nevada is considered one of 17 to 19 swing states. Russo thinks he can overcome Nolan's veteran's advantage with delegates during the Libertarian convention because of his political success and charisma. He added that the bulk of support is "defiantly on the right" because of "overspending and the war in Iraq."
Russo, whose films have won three Golden Globes, believes he can get a million voters to contribute $100 each. Russo boasts that his Web site now gets more traffic than Nader's. He says he has connected support, like legendary actor Jack Nicholson, who did an ad campaign for him in 1998 but has not, as of yet, endorsed Russo for president.
For Robert Novak, if Libertarians do not make their presence felt this election and Mr. Bush's loses, the third-party will hold political weight in 2008.
"I just had breakfast with a guy and we discussed that people are already talking, as politicians do, about the what-ifs," said Novak. "Everybody believes if Bush loses, the Republican Party will move to the left in '08, to the Schwarzenegger and Giuliani strain, and that is where you really get the possibility of a serious third-party movement."
By David Paul Kuhn