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Libertarians make bid for the main stream

George Bush's "no new taxes" pledge was memorable. But others have since expanded on it.

Read their lips: no Internal Revenue Service.

The leaders of America's third-largest political party are telling voters they would cut the federal government to a fraction of its size and return the tax savings to citizens.

The 78-year-old federal income tax, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of the government's income, would be abolished.

Only the most necessary federal agencies would survive with the taxes that remain, but they would do a lot less. Charities would do a lot more. Private companies would take over many government tasks.

People would have more of their paychecks to spend. The economy would get healthy and stay that way.

So say the Libertarians, who are competing in a presidential primary _ in New Hampshire _ for the first time in their party's 20-year history.

In a bid to build credibility, the financially strapped party has purchased its first television ads since 1980. The goal: get more votes than at least one of the Democratic candidates in New Hampshire.

In addition, the Libertarian candidates for president and vice president plan to compete in a handful of other presidential primaries and, for the first time, get on the November ballot in all 50 states.

The want to attract at least 1-million votes, largely from alienated Republicans and Democrats. And like their mainstream counterparts, they have grasped that voters are concerned about the economy.

"The government cannot continue to take nearly half of everything we earn," said Nancy Lord, 40, a lawyer with a medical degree who was nominated for vice president at the party convention in September.

"When you add up your Social Security, your federal taxes, your state taxes, your payroll taxes, your sales taxes, etc., it comes to half of what we earn," she said. "That's what's destroying the economy."

Indeed, the National Taxpayers Union reports that Americans have surrendered an average of 42 to 46 percent of their incomes to local, state and federal governments over the last five years.

"That is the problem," said Andre Marrou, the Libertarian presidential nominee. "This is disastrous; it is killing this country; it is bleeding this country dry. It has caused the recession, which apparently may be developing into a depression."

"An underdog movement?'

Income tax aside, Marrou, Lord and other Libertarians say that down-sizing government is necessary, if only to remove controls that dampen personal freedom and clog the economy's naturally flowing currents.

Left to their own devices, they argue, most people and institutions would behave themselves.

A strong court system would punish those who didn't or who trampled another's rights. And there would be much less need for laws and law enforcers to protect people from themselves and each other.

Libertarians say this is what Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers intended for American society.

The T-shirts on sale in the party newspaper capture the spirit of the movement. They say, "Libertarians do it any way they want."

Marrou, a 53-year-old Las Vegas real-estate broker and former Alaska state representative, has no delusions he will win in November. But if he did, he said recently, one of his first acts as president would be to pardon everyone in federal prison on drug charges.

He and other Libertarians insist the drug war is futile and a waste of money.

Marrou says he also would work to: eliminate or seriously curtail welfare programs, leaving charities to fill the gaps; put an end to laws against prostitution and other morals crimes; open U.S. borders to all immigrants; cut the size of the Cabinet; stop regulation of farm production; curtail zoning laws and local permit and license requirements for businesses; repeal minimum-wage laws; pull U.S. troops from most, if not all, foreign countries; and ban speed limits.

These are but a few proposals.

"Government just screws up everything it touches," Marrou said. "It can't do anything worth a damn, and we should get it out of almost everything that it's doing now."

If more people agreed, Libertarians might be playing a larger role in American politics. But nationally, a scant 100 of the nation's public officials are Libertarians. Most are at the city or county level.

Ron Paul, the last Libertarian presidential candidate, received about 432,000 votes out of 91-million votes cast in 1988. Ed Clark, the 1980 candidate, got 921,000 votes.

Of the more than 700,000 registered voters in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, 263 are registered Libertarians. Pasco and Manatee counties have fewer than 25 registered Libertarians each.

Marrou points proudly to an October poll by the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire's largest newspaper. President Bush placed first with 123 votes. Marrou was second with 99 votes, about twice the total of the next Democrat.

There were 415 responses, but the paper made it clear the poll was unscientific. Newspaper readers participated by sending in coupons. Jesus Christ and Cher were among the vote-getters. The poll went largely unnoticed.

Marrou criticizes the media for ignoring the party.

What Libertarians have is "basically sort of an underdog movement, and as long as that's the case, they're going to have a tough time," said Laird Wilcox, an author and professor specializing in political fringe groups. He also is head of the American Society for the Study of Ideological Belief Systems in Olathe, Kan.

"Libertarian positions, generally speaking, are minority positions but they're not entirely off the wall," Wilcox said. "There is a certain percentage of people that support them. . . . It's not enough to get anyone elected, but it's a hell of a lot people. And this could be a factor in an election between a Republican and a Democrat _ a close election."

Wilcox said the party could grow significantly in the next decade, "but I don't think they'll ever reach a point where they're like a real third party in the sense of having anything like a third of the vote, or a fourth or even a fifth."

For sale: used government parts

Local Libertarians are more optimistic.

"We're arriving at warp speed," said Edward Reasor, a Libertarian leader in Hillsborough County who is running with three other party members for four seats on the Hillsborough County Commission.

"A lot of people are 100 percent with Libertarians . . . but never think of us as having a seriousness as far as we could actually win and make a difference," he said. "But if Marrou . . . does even marginally well in New Hampshire, he'll lend us the legitimacy we'll need to turn the tide."

Reasor, 31, is a computer scientist in Tampa. He said as a county commissioner he would push for lower property taxes and try to stop public financing of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the new Tampa Convention Center.

"We should sell them," he said. "Privatize them both." He also advocates private ownership of the county's bus system and the port authority and deregulation of the taxi system.

The county commission's vote this month to ban T-back bathing suits in public was a big Libertarian no-no.

Reasor concedes the party has a negative image, in part because voters associate Libertarians with efforts to legalize drugs and prostitution.

"People think that we must all be a bunch of perverts or something like that. And we're not," he said. "Generally speaking, Libertarians are Christian or Christian faith. They believe strongly in a strong America. A lot of them are upstanding members of the community, and they just believe that it's wrong to force their beliefs on somebody else.

"I'll never go, and I have never been in one of Joe Redner's (nude-dancing) clubs. But I can understand that people go in them, and I don't want to force them not to go."

On the other side of Tampa Bay, Libertarians are less organized but pushing ahead, said Ned Moren, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Pinellas County.

Moren, a 36-year-old produce clerk, said the Pinellas party will be working against intrusive local ordinances, including one that, he says, regulates lawn care.

"It sounds like a very picky and trivial thing," he said. "But it's the picky and trivial stuff, when it hits you day in and day out, that really gets your blood boiling."

Moren also edits a party newsletter in Pinellas that recently took up the not-so-trivial issue of the Florida Suncoast Dome.

"The mother ship," as Moren calls it, was criticized as a stupid expenditure that was forced on taxpayers _ an unforgiveable violation of the Libertarian creed.

Libertarians and the real world

So, what would the country be like if Libertarians were in charge?

"Very much the same way," said Lord, the vice presidential candidate. "Except we'd have a lot more goods available, a lot more variety, a lot better technology and a lot more money in our pockets.

"The nut who puts razor blades in the apples on Halloween night, they do it anyway. They don't care. The drunks who drive without driver's licenses do it anyway. And we're not saying people are not responsible. People should be held fully accountable for everything they do.

"If there's a need for something, somebody will fill it, whether it's charity or enterprise. . . . If you have to force people to pay for something, it's probably something we can live without."

Not in the real world, says Claus-M. Naske, a political historian at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where a powerful Libertarian taxpayers group dominates the non-partisan city government.

Naske said the anti-tax climate there has led to declines in the police and fire departments, increased insurance rates and hastened decay of the city's infrastructure and services.

"It's a mess," he said. "It's this great idea that the government is only here to provide for the defense and diplomatic relations, and that individuals do the rest for themselves. Well, in an interdependent global society, that just doesn't work."

Libertarianism, he said, is "a curious kind of anachronism from maybe 17th-century America." Today, "you, by necessity, become your brother's keeper. . . . We need to cooperate with one another, and we have to maintain institutions that train people, that restrain people, that punish people and that take care of people. Because individually we can't do that anymore."

According to Wilcox, the Kansas professor, one barrier to success for the party is that libertarianism offers ideological sanctuary to traditional conservatives and liberals alike.

For example, the party allows a right-wing advocate of welfare reform to play in the same political sandbox with a left-wing abortion rights supporter. Dues-paying members of NOW and the NRA might support the same candidate.

That "makes it a very difficult organization to run and a very difficult organization to go anywhere with," he said. "Libertarians, tending to be individualistic and tending to be sort of free-thinking souls, don't cooperate very well."

But party leaders say the traditional political labels are dated, and the broad philosophical mix is part of the party's appeal.

"I couldn't believe that here was a political party that was in favor of legalizing drugs and in favor of protecting the right to keep and bear arms," Marrou said, recalling his first encounter with Libertarian thought in the early 1970s.

"This is basic American philosophy which has been submerged by the Democrats and Republicans," he said. "It is inevitable that we elect a Libertarian president and Congress. I just don't know who and when."

The candidates


Age: 53

Personal: Divorced. Three children.

Career: Commercial real-estate broker, Las Vegas.

Background: As an Alaska state representative from 1984-86, he fought government growth and tax increases. An eloquent speaker, but was unable to parlay that into legislative effectiveness in Alaska. Was Libertarian vice-presidential nominee in 1988.


Age: 40

Personal: Married. Lives in Atlanta.

Career: Attorney specializing in medical-legal and constitutional issues.

Background: Has medical and law degrees. Was candidate for mayor of Washington in 1990. Long-time political activist for causes including the civil rights, women's, anti-war and drug-legalization movements. Motivated in part by the killing of Allison F. Krause, a childhood friend, in the Kent State shootings.

Debate at a glance

Many would disagree with Libertarians on several issues. Below is a brief debate on just one of them _ drug legalization. Nancy Lord, the party's nominee for vice president, argues for it. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Richard A. Luce, a registered Republican, argues against.

PRO Libertarians say legalizing drugs would reduce the legal system's workload and allow it to concentrate on more serious crimes.

Lord supports prohibiting the sale of drugs to anyone under 21.

She was asked if legalization would increase drug usage. "I think that's insulting," she says. "People are not going to use something that's dangerous and lethal and kills them and destroys their life just because the government stops making it illegal. I don't need the government to tell me not to use a drug that can kill me. And I find it very patronizing for the government to make this assumption . . .

"I am a physician, so I understand how bad addiction is. But what we're doing simply isn't working. It's not stopping anyone from using it. It's not stopping the people from selling it. All they're doing is shooting each other and anyone else who gets in the way. And they're bringing little children into the enterprise . . .

"We want to put the drug dealers out of business. We want to sew their pockets up and not let them make another sale. And the only way to do that is to take the profit out of drug dealing. The only way to take back the streets is to take the profit out of it."

CON Judge Luce dismisses the argument that legalization would ease the court system.

"That's a cop-out," he said. "The entire judicial system is certainly being tested. . . . But the health, safety and welfare of the community would be jeopardized if we legalized something to make it easier for the courts."

According to county records, 27 percent of the defendants in Pinellas County Circuit Court were charged with drug offenses last year. Luce said the number increases to about 75 percent when counting cases indirectly tied to drugs. An example: armed robberies committed for drug money.

The problem, Luce said, is that addicts are compelled to pay for drugs somehow, whether they're legalized or not.

Drugs such as cocaine "affect people's behavior patterns," he said. "People become violent when they are under the influence. People become violent when they crave the drug and can't have it."

Legalization would only exacerbate the problems caused by drugs, Luce said. More people would perform jobs under the influence and the costs and human tragedy of cocaine babies would be magnified.

The long-term costs of caring for them "are mind-boggling," he said. "These are just a few of the problems that we foresee."

What do they believe?

Here is a sampling of ideas from the party's platform:

ABORTION Supports the right of women to choose abortion. Opposes laws requiring a mother's parents or prospective fathers to take part in the decision. Opposes tax financing for abortions on grounds that abortion foes shouldn't have to pay for them.

CRIME Supports repeal of laws "creating crimes without victims," including drug laws, underage drinking laws, and laws prohibiting prostitution, pornography, homosexual behavior and gambling. Supports executive pardons for people convicted of these crimes.

EDUCATION "Government ownership, operation, regulation and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended," the platform states. Supports tax credits for private school tuition as an interim measure. Opposes compulsory education, forced busing and corporal punishment.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Supports an end to all foreign intervention and tax-supported foreign aid by the United States. Opposes any further U.S. aid or diplomacy in the Middle East. Opposes apartheid in South Africa, but also opposes sanctions against U.S. companies doing business there.

MILITARY Supports use of armed forces for protection of the United States only. Supports withdrawal of all U.S. military forces stationed abroad. Supports amending the War Powers Act to prevent a president from initiating military action.

TRADE/ECONOMY Supports view that government exists to protect property rights, mediate disputes and provide a legal framework for voluntary trade. "Efforts to forcibly redistribute wealth or forcibly manage trade are intolerable," the platform states. Supports constitutional amendment to balance federal budget. Supports abolishing the Securities and Exchange Commission, and laws regulating financial markets.