Who Will This Third-Party Savior Be?

With some on the Religious Right threatening to divorce the GOP and support a third-party candidate—as a way to punish Republicans if they nominate Rudy Giuliani—one has to wonder who exactly they would be endorsing. Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan captured the far-right imagination in 1988 and 1992, respectively, but there don’t appear to be any big-name spoilers waiting in the wings this year. Even Alan Keyes, a perennial-favorite losing candidate, has thrown his lot in with the Republican field.

The third-party posturing has been led by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, and his own love-hate past with the GOP gives us a clue. In 1996, unwilling to support Bob Dole, Dobson cast a “protest vote” for Howard Phillips, the nominee of the extreme-right U.S. Taxpayer’s Party (a.k.a. the Constitution Party). Phillips was also present by telephone at the Council for National Policy meeting that discussed the third-party strategy.

As a co-founder of the Moral Majority, Phillips was one of the key figures in building the Religious Right, although by even the early 1980s he was disenchanted by the Republican Right he helped put in power. (For example, he repudiated Reagan for being soft on Communism.) In 1991, Phillips began an effort to consolidate various remnants of extremist parties of the past into his U.S. Taxpayer’s Party, building upon the tide of militant anti-abortion activism and militia groups that was cresting in the early 1990s. The USTP would nominate Phillips as its candidate in 1992, again in 1996, and—renamed the Constitution Party—once again in 2000. The party finally gave him a breather in 2004, nominating Maryland lawyer Michael Peroutka after flirting with Ten Commandments-toting ex-judge Roy Moore.

So who will be the Constitution Party candidate in 2008? Phillips is no spring chicken, and Peroutka is out, having endorsed Ron Paul. The other names being floated are far from impressive. In January, the list of potential candidates included Alan Keyes (now a GOP candidate), border vigilante Jim Gilchrist of the Minuteman Project, and Jerome Corsi, co-author of the “Swift Vets” book and one of the major proponents of the theory that the Bush Administration is secretly creating a North American Union. In addition, a Florida pastor named Chuck Baldwin has been mentioned as a potential candidate.

Although a Minuteman candidacy would have the potential to arouse a dedicated anti-immigrant cadre, the Constitution Party has never been able to crack 0.2 percent of the popular vote, making it an unlikely spoiler. And even the pollster who claimed to find that an anti-Giuliani candidate backed by Dobson and friends would capture 27 percent of Republican voters admitted that that level of support would dissipate when an actual candidate is named.