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A former elephant in the room

Times Staff Writer

When Bob Barr called a news conference last month to discuss his idea of the perfect Supreme Court justice, a phone booth could have accommodated the reporters who showed up.

Nonetheless, the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president was no-nonsense: Cuff links fastened, mustache trimmed, he ripped into John McCain’s interpretation of the Constitution, words like “penumbra,” as in “outside the penumbra of Sen. McCain’s misunderstanding,” rolling off his famously tart tongue.

Then he threw it open to questions from members of the Fourth Estate, whose average age looked to be about 19.

“Do you think the country is ready for a president with a mustache?”

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“Do you think you could take Ron Paul in an arm-wrestling match?”

Clearly, one of the many challenges of Barr’s fanciful bid for the White House is figuring out how to get America to take him seriously.

Barr, 59, is not without political credentials -- a four-term Republican congressman from Georgia, he crusaded to impeach President Clinton for abuse of power even before the country heard the name Monica S. Lewinsky.

But out on the presidential campaign trail, hardly anyone asks about his plans to end taxes or get out of Iraq. When they aren’t focusing on facial hair, they want to know if he plans to steal the election from McCain, the likely GOP nominee, and hand it to Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.

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Barr is regularly compared to Ralph Nader, the Green Party spoiler who drew crucial votes from Democrat Al Gore in 2000. Worried McCain supporters have begged Barr to drop out. The renegade responds with his famous bespectacled glare, referring to himself in the third person, as is his habit: “The GOP has no agenda, no platform and a candidate who generates no excitement. That’s not Bob Barr’s fault.”

Being regarded as a spoiler is not his first choice, but if it gets him on CNN -- which it did twice in as many days during a recent week of campaigning -- then so be it. This is known as free media, all Barr can afford since he started out 18 months and millions of dollars behind his more famous rivals. His operation is so frugal, campaign manager Russ Verney personally authorized a case of Dr. Pepper and a big jar of pretzels for the untested staffers, who are so young they have to pay a premium to rent a car.

Barr is running as a Libertarian because he thinks the Republican Party -- which he once served with such enthusiasm that his house and offices overflow with elephant decor -- has run off the rails.

In fact, as much as he despised Clinton, Barr thinks President Bush is worse. “What George W. Bush has done to the fabric of our constitutional government, to separation of powers, to a government of limited powers, is absolutely unforgivable,” he said.

Throughout his political life, Barr has been portrayed as a humorless, pessimistic grump who never smiles. In truth, he has a rather nice smile, though his staff has to prod him to use it, sometimes by telling him a joke before he goes on TV.

At the moment, though, Barr is not smiling. He is applying lip balm to have his picture taken by a national newspaper.

“My philosophy is much smaller government, much greater personal freedom, and start dramatically reducing the size of the federal government,” Barr said.

The chances of him winning are infinitesimally small. National polls show his support in the low- to mid-single digits. But the last two presidential elections turned on one state -- Florida, then Ohio -- and if Barr captures enough votes in even one contest, he might affect this year’s outcome.

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That prospect is greatest in Barr’s home state of Georgia. Obama is already running ads targeting an untapped pool of African Americans and younger voters. State polls suggest Barr’s single-digit following pulls mostly from McCain.

“If Barr can win 5 or 6 points of the total vote -- it’s an if but it’s conceivable -- then Obama could win Georgia,” said Merle Black, who teaches political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

Barr’s anti-government message has resonance in the Mountain states. He is courting the young, irreverent voters who backed Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a former contender for president whom Barr calls one of his best friends. (They have never arm-wrestled, he peevishly notes.)

“What I need to do through my candidacy is make sure his supporters know that Bob Barr is out there,” he said.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and Barr is asking for his Starbucks -- five shots of espresso topped off with steamed half-and-half. The barista emits a low whistle. Barr downs at least three of these a day, right up until bedtime.

“What has to do with your ability to fall asleep is not caffeine. It’s having a clean conscience. I have a clean conscience so I can drink all the caffeine I want,” he said.

He heads into the Washington heat on the way to a private meeting with a supporter, his thoughts shattered by a wailing siren, which he assumes is a frivolous motorcade. “When I’m president, that all stops,” he declared.

Short in stature, with Richard Nixon’s round-shouldered posture, Barr is direct and uncomplicated. He is prompt and never dilly-dallies. He hunts deer, grills steaks and neither knows nor cares what kind of mileage he gets with his 2-year-old Dodge and its V-8 engine.

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Although not wearing the much-ballyhooed flag pin, Barr displays his patriotism in other ways: all of his phone numbers end in 1776 and there is a 7-foot Statue of Liberty replica in one of his offices.

When he’s not running for president, Barr is a lawyer and co-owner of Liberty Strategies, an Atlanta consulting firm he founded after his party redrew his district to his detriment and he lost his House seat in 2002.

“I didn’t cry over spilled milk,” Barr said, later conceding that sometimes he missed life on the Hill. He flashes his former-member identification card to get through restricted doorways and writes thank-you notes on special former-member stationery.

He has no problem envisioning himself as commander in chief.

“Immediately upon assuming office, I would sit down with our military leaders and I would direct, not ask, but direct that they begin an immediate and significant drawdown in Iraq,” he asserted, deftly shifting talk of Bob Barr as spoiler to Bob Barr as president.

Unlike candidates who play verbal games of Twister to avoid the dreaded flip-flop, Barr freely admits that he has disavowed his long conservative resume in favor of the Libertarian philosophy of less government.

His vote to authorize the war? A mistake. The Patriot Act? Ditto: It was an excuse for unreasonable government spying. He has disowned the Defense of Marriage Act he championed, not because Jeri Barr is his third wife but because Libertarians don’t believe in government telling people whom to marry. (He says that is up to each state.)

“Clearly the federal policies I’ve supported in the past are not working,” he said, unabashed.

Barr aims to be on the ballot in every state but Oklahoma, where the signature requirement is too high. Part of his challenge as he stakes out the electoral map is his party’s hard-to-define ideology. Libertarians line up with liberals on privacy issues and with conservatives on gun rights.

They have never fielded a serious presidential contender, and their conventions are even more bizarre than the spectacles the major parties throw. The Denver gathering in May that nominated Barr after six raucous ballots selected as his running mate Wayne Allyn Root, a professional sports handicapper and gambler from Las Vegas.

Barr brings odd baggage of his own to the race. In 1998, he licked whipped cream off the chests of two buxom women at a Leukemia Society fundraiser. During his last congressional campaign, he was handling an antique firearm to underscore his support for the 2nd Amendment and it went off, shattering a glass door.

His second wife, Gail, the mother of his two sons, was once paid an undisclosed sum by Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt for an article accusing Barr of adultery with his would-be third wife. He did not deny the charge, which arose inconveniently during the Clinton impeachment.

Barr raised his sons mostly on weekends; the youngest, Derek, the campaign’s 26-year-old spokesman, speaks warmly of a father who always attended basketball and soccer games and sometimes picked them up from school in a big white Lincoln.

If Bob Barr is anything, it’s focused. He acknowledges his campaign is a long shot, but at the very least he will bring attention to the values of freedom he learned growing up the son of a civil engineer in far-flung places such as Iran and Iraq. (The longest place he lived as a boy was Baghdad, for three years.)

It was that kind of focus -- that and his love of the limelight -- that powered him when he was the lone voice calling for impeachment and members of his own party dismissed him as foolhardy.

It’s been a busy day, and Barr boards the evening shuttle from Washington back to Atlanta and his 12th-floor consulting offices, the temporary campaign headquarters.

All around are remnants of the substantial elephant collection -- elephant bookends on a desk, a close-up of an elephant’s trunk in the hallway. It’s an awkward display, considering he now regards Republican lawmakers as wimps scared into submission by Bush. But as Barr is fond of saying, “I don’t worry about it.”

In his home state, he still makes headlines.

The next day, when he holds another news conference to file papers to get on the Georgia ballot, the turnout at the state Capitol is a lot better than the ragtag bunch that showed up in Washington. There are serious journalists who knew him when, and TV cameramen willing to walk backward to record his every step down the gilded corridors, just like old times.

“It was good of them to come,” Barr said, genuinely pleased with an event that will make the nightly news -- not because he might win but because he might cause McCain to lose.

But that, as he likes to say, is not Bob Barr’s problem.

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faye.fiore@latimes.com


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