The eyes of much of the country, especially party insiders, last week were fixed on the GOP convention, for the rollout of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and on John McCain’s acceptance speech. Yet just a few days earlier in the town next door, thousands booed Republicans as loud as Democrats. Ron Paul supporters gathered for the “Rally for the Republic,” a voting bloc that could be far more consequential to the upcoming election in Montana than those who showed up at the RNC. Especially since Paul actually made the ballot here as a Constitution Party candidate.
It’s a predicament, in recent years, reserved for Democrats who have grappled with Ralph Nader running to the left of their candidates. Remember the bumper sticker: “George and Al make me want to Ralph.” Following President Bush’s razor-thin victory in 2000, Democrats were outraged and blamed the long-time consumer advocate for costing them the election.
Eight years later, Nader is still reviled by many on the left – even in Montana, which is not exactly flush with liberals. Kesa Bechard, state coordinator for the Nader campaign, said she encountered “terrible reactions” petitioning to put his name on the ballot. But his critics needn’t worry. Nader is unlikely to get much traction this year. Instead, in a throwback to the days of Ross Perot, it’s fiscal conservatives and Libertarians wary of the mainstream tickets.
While Paul’s supporters don’t number those of Perot in 1992, they are perhaps more passionate and, at least publicly, say they will not support McCain. Paul, a Texas Congressman who ran in the presidential primary as a Republican, didn’t give any marching orders to his throngs of adoring supporters in Minneapolis last week. He did, however, praise both Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin and the Libertarian Party’s Bob Barr. Then, earlier this week, the Montana Secretary of State’s office reported that the Constitution Party of Montana, which is unaffiliated with the national Constitution Party, submitted Paul, instead of Baldwin, as its nominee.
Paul wasn’t asked to speak at the GOP Convention and, what’s more, was apparently told he would be “chaperoned” on the floor of the convention hall if he wanted to attend at all. That was stupid. Whether mainstream Republicans embrace Paul’s libertarian-leaning views that include ending the Iraq War, luring his passionate, often young, supporters would seem essential in what will likely be another close presidential race.
McCain did turn the race on its head by choosing Palin, Alaska’s charismatic, albeit little-known, governor as his running mate. This may, in fact, attract evangelicals that McCain was struggling to court on his own. But the pick will do little to appease those championing Paul, who in Montana tallied 20,606 votes in the June 3 primary, compared to 72,791 for McCain.
Knowing the third-party influence on the election will be profound, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has already encouraged those voters disillusioned by Barack Obama’s gun-rights record to cast their ballot for Barr. It’s a deft argument, one made easy by the fact that McCain received a “C” for his gun rights legislative record from the National Rifle Association (Obama earned an “F”). Now the governor can suggest the far more popular Paul as an alternative to the mainstream candidates.
Republicans could have done more to urge Paul to at least half-heartedly back McCain over Obama. Not acknowledging him at all will only fuel the disaffection felt by his supporters.
Conventional thinking says the presidential race in Montana will be close. But if McCain loses a state that he should win, he can’t blame Paul, just like Democrats are wrong to keep holding a grudge against Nader. Two parties, instead of hoping to monopolize elections, should instead spend more energy attracting voters to them.
If McCain loses Montana because of votes cast for Paul, Barr or Baldwin, blame his absurd strategy of ignoring the fact that those voters actually exist.
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