Two political parties, the Democrats and Republicans, dominate U.S. politics, but smaller so-called "third parties" are also active on political scene. Mike O'Sullivan reports, Libertarians are in the process of selecting their presidential nominee, and say this may be the year to end two-party domination.
All U.S. political parties claim to support liberty, but members of the Libertarian Party say that individual freedom and smaller government are at the core of their platform. The party has just 200,000 registered voters, but looks for support among independent voters and those with other party affiliations.
Of the handful of candidates for the Libertarian nomination, one started his run for president as a Democrat. Former U.S. senator Mike Gravel of Alaska took part in the early Democratic debates with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other presidential hopefuls. Excluded from later debates, he dropped out of the race, registered as a Libertarian and became a candidate for the party's presidential nomination. He says he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq and the U.S. government out of people's pocketbooks.
He would abolish the Internal Revenue Service - the U.S. tax agency - and supports a so-called "fair tax," which would raise revenue by a 23 percent consumption tax on new goods and services.
He wants a direct form of democracy so that people around the country can vote on legislation.
"The central power of government in a democracy is lawmaking," he said. "And so if we want to participate in the power of this country, the American people have to become lawmakers, and to be able to repeal laws and to pass laws."
He says similar systems of voter initiatives and referenda work well in 23 U.S. states and Switzerland.
Libertarian candidate Wayne Allyn Root calls Gravel a liberal, not a true libertarian, and accuses him of wanting bigger government. He notes that Gravel supports a universal health care system and a carbon tax on environmental emissions.
Root calls himself a free market conservative. He was once a registered Republican, but is unhappy with social conservatives in the party, saying issues such as abortion and homosexuality are none of the government's business. A Las Vegas odds-maker, he also objects to Republican efforts to curb online gambling. He wants government out of people's lives, and wants to cut other taxes.
"I would cut, cut, cut dramatically, dramatically, dramatically," he said. "I believe the role of the government is to protect us from others, from robbers, muggers, criminals, rapists, murderers, and of course foreign invaders. But it's not to protect us from ourselves."
The possible candidacy of former Republican congressman Bob Barr is drawing added attention to the Libertarian race. The four-term representative from Georgia was one of the leaders of the impeachment effort against President Clinton. He is known as a strict conservative and critic of intrusive government. Unlike most Libertarians, he was once outspoken on social issues, opposing same-sex marriage and illicit drug use. But he says he wants to end government meddling in the lives of citizens. He also wants to abolish the U.S. tax agency, and supports a national tax on new goods and services.
Barr, who became a Libertarian a year-and-a-half ago, has announced an exploratory committee for the party's presidential nomination. He says the response has been enthusiastic, and that his possible candidacy would do two things.
"One, provide a real choice to the two major parties, and also to open up the debates and the dialogue during the campaign to address some of the fundamental constitutional issues that simply are not being discussed in the current environment," he said.
Barr says those issues include government intrusion in people's lives in the name of security.
What chance does a Libertarian have of being elected president? The party's 2004 presidential candidate drew less than half a percent of the vote. The party's best showing was in 1980, when the Libertarian got just over one percent. Polls show that between 10 and 20 percent of Americans agree with Libertarian positions, embracing conservative ideas on the economy and liberal positions on personal freedom. Texas congressman Ron Paul had little success when he ran as a Libertarian presidential candidate in 1988, but in this election campaign, running as a Republican, he has built a base of support across party lines.
Libertarians say the candidacies of Ron Paul and Barack Obama show the political landscape has changed. Both have used the Internet as a forum for their ideas and a platform for fundraising and both have attracted new voters.
Bob Barr's critics say he may have the most impact, if he officially enters the Libertarian race and gets the nomination. They say he could become a "spoiler," drawing votes from presumed Republican nominee John McCain and helping the Democrats. The same is said of Mike Gravel on the Democratic side - that he could draw votes from the Democratic candidate, a charge leveled at Ralph Nader in the last two elections. Gravel and Barr reject the argument, which Barr says is arrogant and childish.
"The fact that the Republican Party in recent election cycles has spent a great deal of its time whining about the possibility of third-party candidates serving as spoilers on its side of the equation, the same as the Democrat Party has spent time whining about candidates serving as spoilers on its side - Mr. Nader, for example - indicates that the two parties truly are wedded to the notion that they have a right to be the only parties that can play on the presidential playing field," he said.
These candidates say they did not leave the major parties, but that the parties lost their libertarian roots and left them. They say the Libertarian message of small, non-intrusive government may strike a chord this year, and at the very least, can inject important ideas into the campaign.
Candidate Wayne Allyn Root says voters are responding to his message.
"Open your wallet. Look inside. Vote for me, and I promise to stay the hell out of there," he said.
Libertarians will select their candidate from among these and other presidential hopefuls at the party's convention in Denver from May 22 to May 26.