updated 6/21/2004 3:28:50 PM ET 2004-06-21T19:28:50

Moses Murphy was as Republican as they come. The 27-year-old former Marine always voted a straight ticket and his Jeep Cherokee sported three “Bush-Cheney ’04” bumper stickers.

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But two months ago as the Boardsman, Ohio, resident was surfing the Internet, he came across the Web site for the Constitution Party, a small, conservative group still struggling to be on the ballot in every state.

Off came the Bush paraphernalia and now Murphy’s Jeep is plastered with stickers for Michael Peroutka, the Constitution Party’s little-known presidential nominee.

Media attention has focused on Ralph Nader as a potential spoiler to presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, but President Bush could face a similar threat from third party candidates on the right.

The Constitution and Libertarian parties believe they could siphon away enough disenchanted conservatives to tip a close election.

For Murphy, Bush’s proposal to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants living in the United States was the final straw.

“We can’t keep letting illegals come in; we need troops on the border,” Murphy said in a telephone interview. “(Bush’s) views no longer reflect my views, and I need to vote my principles.”

The party occupying the White House is typically more prone to disgruntled ideologues bolting for a third party, said Lawrence Jacbobs, director of the 2004 Elections Project for the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota.

And hardline conservatives have no shortage of gripes with the president they helped elect. Topping the list is the dramatic increase in federal spending, especially the $500 billion new Medicare entitlement for prescription drugs Bush pushed through Congress, said Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation and a leading conservative activist.

Weyrich said grassroots conservatives “have a real problem with this administration’s out of control spending.”

Tipping the balance
But it is unclear whether this grumbling on the right will translate into votes for the Libertarian or Constitution party nominees.

In 2000, the Libertarian nominee received only about 385,000 votes or 0.36 percent, and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan won about 450,000 or 0.42 percent. By contrast, Nader, running from the left, took almost 3 million votes or 2.74 percent and possibly swung the election to Bush with a strong Florida showing.

Any defections from Bush’s base would be “minuscule” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, and the policy gripes of Washington political elites do not necessarily resonate among the Republican rank-and-file.

“Spokesman for the conservative movement see it as their job to grumble” when politicians on the right begin to stray, Rothenberg said.

However, even a handful of defections in key states could tip the balance. For Bush to have a hope of winning, Rothenberg said, his support among Republicans cannot dip much below 90 percent.

Unlike Nader, who was on 43 state ballots in 2000 as the Green Party nominee and is struggling to match that this year, the Libertarian nominee is typically on the ballot in all 50 states, Jacobs said.

The Constitution Party was on the presidential ballot in 42 states in 2000.

Libertarians have already proven they can decide the outcome of close elections. In the 2002 South Dakota Senate race, the Republican challenger lost by about 500 votes, with the Libertarian candidate receiving more than 3,000.

That same year, Libertarian candidates in the Wisconsin and Oregon gubernatorial races received 11 and 5 percent respectively, far exceeding the Democrat’s margin of victory.

Narrow losses in Oregon, Wisconsin
Bush lost both Oregon and Wisconsin by less than a percentage point in 2000, and both will be in play this year.

Swing states like New Hampshire and Nevada may also be fertile ground for Libertarians, Jacobs said.

But the Libertarian and Constitution party platforms could be an obstacle in peeling away conservative votes from Bush.

Both sound familiar conservative themes of slashing government and lowering taxes, but they also advocate the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and the Libertarians are socially liberal, supporting abortion rights and drug legalization.

A general rule of thumb, Rothenberg said, is that about half of the voters who support third parties are outsiders who would not vote if their candidate was not running.

But if his candidacy does siphon away enough conservatives from Bush to put Kerry in the White House, Libertarian presidential nominee Michael Badnarik says that is fine with him. There is little difference between the major parties, he said, and playing the spoiler in a presidential election would greatly enhance Libertarians’ national profile.

Peroutka, the Constitution nominee, said a Kerry victory could even help the conservative cause by prompting Republicans in Congress, who have approved Bush’s spending increases, to oppose similar measures proposed by Kerry. 

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