Garrett Michael Hayes, the Libertarian Party's gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, doesn't have much in common with Ralph Nader.
But if that race, as well as the contest for U.S. Senate, is as close as many people are predicting, Hayes and fellow Libertarian, Senate candidate Sandy Thomas, may do to the Republicans this November what Nader did to Al Gore and the Democrats two years ago.
Like Nader's infamous Green Party, the Libertarians in Georgia don't stand much chance at winning any election. But the Libertarians -- with their platforms of less government and more civil liberties -- are able to tap into a rich vein of voter discontent. And the voters drawn to the Libertarians are, by and large, Republicans.
The result? If Hayes or Thomas manage to draw just 2 or 3 percent of the vote, it could spell the difference between Roy Barnes or Sonny Perdue, or Max Cleland or Saxby Chambliss.
If that happens, it won't have been the first time. In the 1996 U.S. Senate race, for example, Guy Millner lost to Cleland by just 30,000 votes. The Libertarian candidate, Jack Cashin, garnered 80,000 votes. If not for Cashin, it's Millner who'd be running for re-election this year, not Cleland.
"Clearly, those Libertarians, with their 2 or 3 percent of the vote, are working for the election of Democrats," says Charles Bullock, University of Georgia political science professor.
Essential to the "Libertarian effect," however, is black voter turn-out. If blacks stay home, Democratic candidates suffer and no Libertarian candidate in the world will keep Republicans from attracting enough votes to win.
Hayes, who could torpedo GOP gubernatorial hopeful Perdue's chances Nov. 5, isn't apologizing.
Republicans might say they're for smaller government and personal freedom -- the mantra of the Libertarian Party -- but there's a big difference between what they say and what they do, Hayes says.
"They're still increasing government," he says of Republicans. "They just do it in a different way. What you have is one group going 80 miles per hour in one direction and the other group three degrees off at 60 miles per hour."
Mark Mosley, executive director of the Libertarian Party of Georgia, expects Libertarians at the top of the ticket to continue to pull 2 or 3 percent of the vote while the party makes greater gains in the lesser-known races, such as Public Service Commission. He says Libertarians will continue to run unless the state's two dominant parties start addressing their concerns.
"Truth is, the Republican Party could put Libertarians out of business overnight if they got serious about pro-freedom issues," Mosley says.
That would mean that Republicans would have to drop some of the law-and-order issues -- stringent anti-drug policies, for instance -- that make the party popular but increase the government's presence in our lives. And instead of simply saying they would reduce taxes, the party would have to fight against the governmental structure that so many people count on for so much. Not such a popular position.
Mosley says that thus far Republicans have paid only lip service to the central beliefs of the party. Take the Barr-Linder primary race, in which Linder clobbered Barr.
"Both of them are dead set against medical marijuana; as Libertarians, we see that as a cruel position to hold," Mosley says. "If you're sick, you should be given the freedom to make that choice. We want a candidate who understands the 2nd Amendment and that you can choose the medicines that are best for you."
While the appeal of a little-known, third party candidate might seem quixotic to some, Mosley says there are voters who believe deeply in the principles of the party. Of course, another factor may be radio talk show host Neal Boortz, one of the most prominent Libertarians in the nation.
"What's here that is not in other markets is a consistent voice telling you you're not a wack job for voting Libertarian," says Gary Horlacher, a former press secretary for Gov. Roy Barnes.
Mosley attributes much of the modest success the party has had in Georgia to the base the blustery Boortz has helped build. Hayes is more cautious, but he says the talk show host's advocacy has certainly cut down on the number of people asking, "The Librarian Party?"
This year, nine Libertarian candidates are running statewide races, up from eight in 1998, and five district candidates, up from three in 2000. These are small increases, but they're all part of the continuing effort to build the party, says Mosley, who is himself running for a state House seat.
For now, though, there's an artificial cap on the party's growth. The state's antiquated, and arguably undemocratic, ballot access laws provide two sets of standards for hopefuls: one set for Democrats and Republicans and another set for third-party candidates. If you're not a Democrat or Republican in Georgia, to get on the ballot, you have to collect signatures from 5 percent of the population in the district. So in a stateHouse of Representatives district, prospective candidates have to collect signatures of 1,000 people, and that usually means going door-to-door. For a U.S. House of Representatives seat, the signature tally jumps to 15,000, a tough task if you have to, say, hold down a job.
The ballot access laws were put in place in 1943 and haven't been changed since.
So for now, the Libertarian Party will have to content itself with its ideological stand and the role of potential spoiler.