Though it failed to snap up extremist hero Roy Moore for its 2004 presidential ticket, the far-right Constitution Party hopes to shake things up for Bush by splitting his conservative Christian base.
VALLEY FORGE, Pa. -- For a few tantalizing months last winter and spring, the wildest dreams of Al Franken liberals bore a surprising resemblance to those of Pat Buchanan conservatives. Strangely enough, the main character in their common fantasy was one of the country's most divisive politicians: Roy Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
When the judge was booted out of office in August 2003 for defying a federal court order to remove his 2.5-ton Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building, hundreds of fundamentalist and neo-Confederate supporters rallied around him, chanting, "Roy Moore for president!" That far-fetched notion was mostly forgotten until last November, when The Associated Press ran a story headlined "Constitution Party wants Moore to run for president."
The details were sketchy, aside from the fact that the national chairman of the staunchly anti-government, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigrant third party — the only political entity listed as a "Patriot" group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — had approached Moore about quitting the GOP and mounting an anti-Bush candidacy.
But in no time flat, "Draft Moore" petitions were circulating on the Internet, "Moore in 2004" merchandise was on sale, and liberal and right-wing pundits were preaching the good news to their respective choirs.
Their motivations were drastically different, of course. The extreme right was furious with Bush for invading Iraq, holding a Ramadan service in the White House, proposing amnesty for illegal immigrants, appointing "sodomites" to federal posts, running up the national debt, and allowing the assault-weapons ban to stand.
Since the early days of Bush's term, extremists like Chuck Baldwin, an evangelical pastor and talk-show host from Pensacola, Fla., had been urging their fellow travelers to "draw your line in the sand" and stop voting like sheep for the Republicans.
Because Bush had proven a "sellout," Baldwin said, it was time to teach the GOP a lesson. Judge Moore, "truly an American hero and statesman of the highest order," was just the man to do it.
Moore's cheerleaders at left-leaning magazines like The Nation and Slate saw his candidacy as an antidote to the Democrats' own third-party threat, Ralph Nader. "Say it loud and say it proud: Roy Moore for president," cheered liberal columnist Diane Roberts in the St. Petersburg Times.
"[W]hile he might seem like just another Bible-brandishing freak from the state that gave us George Wallace ... he may also be the answer to the Democrats' prayers."
How perfect could it get? Moore and the Constitution Party looked like a match made in heaven, with their mutual disgust for abortion and the "homosexual agenda," and their mutual desire to make the U.S. a Bible-based republic.
True, the Constitution Party is small, with only 340,000 registered voters nationwide, but that does make it the nation's biggest third party. Considering the dismal track record of American third parties, it's also one of the longest-lasting, having existed in one form or another since Wallace's wildly successful third-party effort in 1968 (see related interview, Crashing the Parties).
Ever since the remains of Wallace's American Independent Party merged with other far-right entities to form the party that was initially known as the U.S. Taxpayers Party in 1992, it had been trying to lure another big-name presidential candidate to raise its profile — the key to making a third party viable. Buchanan, among others, had played footsie with the Constitution Party in recent elections, only to pull back at the last minute. Now the party had another savior in its sights.
Moore did his part to fan the flames. Traveling the country last winter and spring, addressing audiences of adoring fundamentalists for $10,000 a pop, he spoke of "a great awakening coming" — hint, hint. At least half a dozen of his talks were in front of Constitution Party gatherings. He told listeners that "the major political parties in this country are not concentrating on the Constitution." And he made it clear he would not endorse a Democrat or Republican.
"As somebody from our state, George Wallace, once said, 'There's not a dime's worth of difference between them,'" he told the Seattle Times in May. "I think the people need a choice."
A few weeks later, Moore dashed the dreams of his peculiar coalition. Shortly before the Constitution Party's national convention, the ex-judge announced that he would take his quixotic quest for reinstatement — already rejected by Alabama state courts — to the U.S. Supreme Court. Moore said his appeal, due in early August, would not leave him enough time to campaign.
Others speculated that his reasons were political; the Alabama GOP had struck a local candidate off the Republican primary ballot after she spoke highly of the Constitution Party, and the presidential bid might have wrecked Moore's prospects of running as a Republican for Alabama governor in 2006.
Whatever Moore's reasons, the death of his candidacy killed mainstream media interest in the Constitution Party. But the pundits might have tuned out too soon. Even without a big-name candidate topping its ticket, America's most extreme political party still has a shot at being the quiet assassin of Bush's re-election effort.
Voting for 'Righteousness'
Fresh from being spurned at the altar by another attractive bridegroom, the Constitution Party faithful came to their late-June convention in a spirit of defiant optimism. "We want to vote for righteousness," declared the Rev. Michael Chastain in the convention-opening prayer, greeted by a chorus of amens from 50 state delegations spread out around a big, shabby convention hall in Valley Forge, Pa.
The three-day gathering brought plenty of assurances that the party's default presidential candidate, home-schooling attorney Michael Peroutka of Maryland, would give Americans a golden opportunity to vote for righteousness. But the main order of business was psyching up the troops and rehearsing the lines they'd use to sway disgruntled Republicans into the fold this fall.
"There's been a vacuum created by both major parties going in the same direction," said party chairman Jim Clymer, standing in front of the main stage prop, a huge replica of the Declaration of Independence. "Republicans are liberals with fascist leanings," Clymer quipped, "and Democrats are liberals with socialist leanings."
Clymer's remarks led off a parade of historical re-enactors (Patrick Henry, George Washington, John Wayne) and right-wing luminaries (including 2000 Reform Party vice-presidential candidate Ezola Foster and Larry Pratt, head of the radical Gun Owners of America) who bashed Bush and proclaimed their own independence from the GOP.
"We're not one nation under God — we're one nation under God's wrath," said John Lofton, a former GOP operative who's now earning $800 a week running Peroutka for President's press operations. His sentiment was seconded by Michael Hill, president of the neo-Confederate hate group League of the South.
Given the country's love for illegals, "sodomites" and reckless empire-building, Hill demanded, "Why should God bless America?"
Certainly not with Bush as president, said Doug Phillips, head of the archconservative Vision Forum. "There is one thing worse than having a secular humanist in the White House," he said. "Having a Christian humanist is worse!" Phillips' father, Constitution Party founder (and former aide to President Nixon) Howard Phillips, trotted out a list of more than 200 ways Bush has "betrayed" conservatives with his "Great Society Liberalism."
However puzzling such disaffection might sound to mainstream Americans, the Constitutionalists are hardly alone. Right-wing Web sites swarm with anti-Bush headlines The Nation would be hard-pressed to match.
Whistleblower magazine, an archconservative monthly, published a special issue in June that proclaimed a "Revolt on the Right," calling it "one of the most under-reported but pivotal stories of this election season. Untold numbers of American Christians, conservatives, Republicans, libertarians, constitutionalists and others on the right are torn over how to vote in this November's election." When Buchanan delivered his anti-Bush screed, Where the Right Went Wrong, in August, that "untold number" undoubtedly multiplied.
Which means that Howard Phillips wasn't exaggerating when he assured the folks in Valley Forge that even without Roy Moore, "We have extraordinary possibilities this year." Partly, Phillips noted, that's because "there's no competition on the conservative side."
Not on the extremist side, anyway. Unlike recent elections, there will be no Buchanan, no Alan Keyes, no Gary Bauer and no Pat Robertson echoing the hard Christian Right message on the campaign trail.
Can the Constitution Party capitalize? Maybe so, say a surprising number of anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-gay and neo-Confederate groups who have endorsed Peroutka. Probably not, says Micah Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third Parties in America. "Purism holds a party together," he says, "but keeps it small."
The Constitutionalists may not need a big-tent approach to do some damage this year. Just ask Karl Rove, Bush's political guru, who told the American Enterprise Institute in 2001 that his man almost lost the 2000 election because 4 million Christian conservatives stayed home on Election Day.
With Bush even less appealing to those voters in 2004, The Associated Press noted in June, "Even a handful of defections in key states could tip the balance."
Without a big-name candidate like Buchanan or Moore, the Constitution Party can't hope to mount a serious nationwide challenge. But it's poised to make a serious splash in key "battleground" states — two of the biggest, in fact.
'A Real Chance'
In Pennsylvania, which Al Gore narrowly carried in 2000, the Constitutionalists have just the kind of secret weapon most third parties can only fantasize about: a proven vote-getter on the ballot. In 1994 and 1998 campaigns for lieutenant governor, Lancaster attorney Jim Clymer, now the party's national chairman, siphoned away enough Republican votes to rack up 13% and 10%, respectively.
Now Clymer, described by one longtime observer as a "low-key rabble-rouser," is back, running for U.S. Senate — and the timing could not be more propitious. Nowhere in the country are conservatives more eager to send a harsh message to President Bush and the Republican establishment.
Their frustration stems from this spring's Republican primary. It looked like moderate Sen. Arlen Specter — despised by right-wingers as the GOP's most powerful supporter of abortion rights — was going to lose Pennsylvania's Republican primary to true-blue conservative Pat Toomey.
Quaker State conservatives were just starting to plan their victory parties when Bush and the state's other senator, Rick Santorum, launched an aggressive last-minute push to keep Specter in Washington. It worked, just barely. But as soon as Specter eked out a 16,000-vote victory, Clymer announced that he would mount his own stop-Specter campaign.
His effort was all the buzz at the Constitution Party convention, with Howard Phillips calling it "the race where we have a real chance to get national attention." Proving the point, former GOP Congressman Bob Barr, famous for his instrumental role in President Bill Clinton's impeachment, flew to Valley Forge to speak at a fundraising luncheon for Clymer.
Hardline conservatives are energized about Specter's ouster because he's in line to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee if re-elected — putting him in position to block judicial nominees who want to outlaw abortion.
Clymer believes he can create a "real three-way race" with Specter and Democratic nominee Joe Hoeffel. The anti-Specter, anti-Bush backlash isn't the only factor in his favor. A whopping 72% of Pennsylvanians say they're open to third-party voting. The Constitution Party has its strongest base and best organization in the Quaker State.
Still, most pundits agree with Congressional Quarterly's assessment that Clymer is most likely to be "the skunk at the garden party," unable to win but perfectly able to spoil Specter's re-election bid.
Even if that's the best Clymer can do, playing the spoiler in a critical Senate race would work wonders for the Constitution Party's national profile — and it just might doom Bush's chances of carrying the nation's second-largest toss-up state as well. "If the Constitution Party had a high-profile presidential candidate, it would probably be a cinch," says a reporter who's covered Pennsylvania politics for years. "But even if only half of Clymer's votes carry over to Peroutka, Bush could still be toast."
Shadows Over the Sunshine State
In Florida, the toss-up state to end all toss-up states, the Constitution Party's chances to derail President Bush rest on a very different set of shoulders — those of vice-presidential nominee Chuck Baldwin, a gun-loving evangelist who's mounting his first political campaign.
Even those who nominated Baldwin in Valley Forge had trouble pinpointing his qualifications for the nation's second-highest office. "All of his children are Christians," offered Thom Holmes of Oklahoma. "He's a strong Americanist and a constitutionalist through and through," said Florida's Jack McLain. "He's my kind of guy," said presidential nominee Michael Peroutka.
In his acceptance speech, Baldwin admitted that when Peroutka invited him to join the ticket, "I thought it was a joke."
But Baldwin's political connections — including Roy Moore, Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchanan, Ezola Foster and former Congressman Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" — are no laughing matter.
Nor is his potential to woo Bush voters on the Florida panhandle, which has one of the nation's largest concentrations of fundamentalist Christians. Baldwin is well known there as the man who started Crossroad Baptist Church from scratch and turned it into an evangelical powerhouse, complete with a mock graveyard honoring aborted fetuses.
Though one letter-writer to the Pensacola News-Journal said that Baldwin "could not even win as dog-catcher in Escambia County," those who've battled Baldwin on abortion and public-school curriculum controversies don't underestimate him.
"I admire his unstoppable energy, the fire he has in him," says Bill Caplinger of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "He's incredibly ambitious, and a good speaker. He'll definitely get some votes."
It will take plenty of fire and energy to make a Nader-sized dent in Florida this fall. (The consumer advocate tallied 98,000 votes there in 2000.) But if the margin is anywhere near as close as last time, when Bush won Florida's disputed contest by just 537 votes, Baldwin's support might be enough to tip the precarious balance.
Last time around, every political analyst in America pointed out that Nader's voters robbed Gore of a clear win in the Sunshine State. Nobody seemed to notice that nearly 40,000 conservatives in the state had voted for third-party candidates rather than Bush.
Like most Constitution Partiers, Baldwin was once a staunch Republican. But his quirky ideology is a perfect match for the party of God and guns. In addition to his fundamentalist beliefs, Baldwin was identified in a 1995 newspaper article as an active member of the Escambia County Militia. ("Jesus never preached disarmament," he explained.)
Baldwin is well equipped to make his political conversion story sing on the campaign trail — and on his radio show. By the end of his acceptance speech in Valley Forge, the Pensacola pastor had transformed the somber convention into a fair approximation of a tent revival. Mixing piety and militance, Baldwin not only invoked the Biblical tale of David and Goliath, but also a couple of more secular battles.
"Tell those men at Bunker Hill, 'You cannot win!'" he thundered. "Tell those men at the Alamo, 'You cannot win!'" His new congregation whooped, cheered, Rebel-yelled and shouted amen.
Skillfully bringing it down a notch, Baldwin ended with an exhortation from the New Testament that aptly summarized the rationale for his unlikely campaign: "We can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us."
All the faith in the world, and all the vagaries of the 2004 election map, may not be sufficient to the Constitution Party's task this fall without a sterling performance from the man at the top of its ticket. When World Magazine headlined a profile of Michael Peroutka, "Can This Man Be Bush's Nader?" it drew an arrow straight to the party's biggest question mark.
Peroutka is an unknown quantity, a political novice who entered the race about as well known as — well, Chuck Baldwin.
The blond-haired, blue-eyed, 53-year-old became a Constitution Party favorite by launching the Institute for the Constitution, which peddles 12-week seminars teaching a Biblical version of the U.S. government. His membership in the League of the South has helped bring neo-Confederates into the Constitution Party.
But Peroutka largely won the nomination the old-fashioned way: As of June, according to the Federal Election Commission, Peroutka had dished out nearly $160,000 to the Constitution Party and its candidates since 2000. His brother and law partner, Stephen Peroutka, chipped in $60,000 in the same time period.
By the end of May, Peroutka had loaned his own campaign $120,000 — small change in the world of major-party politics, but reason enough for Howard Phillips to call the nominee a "godsend" for a struggling party whose coffers contained less than $10,000 last January.
With his aging altar-boy looks, his handsome clutch of home-schooled children, and his politician's knack for appearing completely delighted to meet every supporter and shake every hand, Peroutka certainly looks the part. He wisely honed his message — and raised his name recognition — by introducing Roy Moore on several stops of his speaking tour.
Aside from riding Moore's coattails, Peroutka appears to be pursuing a smart campaign strategy: Buy cheap ads on right-wing Web sites, visit as much of the country as possible, get free publicity on conservative talk shows, and leave no doubt that your message is a dead-ringer for that of the "Ten Commandments Judge."
"The God of the Bible must be first," Peroutka often tells audiences, "because ... He says so!" Making his pitch to Christian Republicans, Peroutka's strongest argument comes from the Bible: "It's just as wrong to vote for Gomorrah as it is to vote for a slightly more evil Sodom."
Peroutka's wholesome appeal as "the home-school candidate" was undercut by a scathing profile this spring in Baltimore City Paper. Though Peroutka likes to preach family responsibility and criticize state-funded programs for kids (often proclaiming in campaign speeches, "The state has no children!"), reporter Van Smith discovered that the candidate had disowned two teenage stepdaughters who accused him of abuse, turning them over to the state of Maryland and rebuffing their subsequent attempts to reconcile with their mother.
Peroutka's public record also includes a conviction for driving with an illegally high concentration of alcohol in his system in 1991, and questions have been raised about his sudden rise to wealth. "Just a few years ago," Smith says, "the Peroutkas were living in cul-de-sac townhouse developments, and suddenly they're in this huge new house" valued at well over half a million dollars.
Peroutka's response to City Paper's financial questions was pious but vague: "I am thankful to God from whom all blessings flow."
The exposé appeared to have muted the enthusiasm for Peroutka in Valley Forge, where his acceptance speech was polished and inflammatory — "What kind of country sends sodomites to fight in an unconstitutional, undeclared war?" — but greeted mostly with polite applause.
"Well, he's not perfect," said party activist Becky Lynn Black. "But that's true of everyone over 40. It's called life experience."
Maybe so, but Peroutka's hard knocks could imperil the enthusiasm the Constitution Party needs from its members this fall. Fortunately for Peroutka, George W. Bush and the far-right propagandists who despise him are doing most of the work for his campaign. The extremist backlash might be all the Constitution Party needs to put a scare into the GOP — and into the liberals who once dared to dream.