ATLANTA—"Look," says Allen Buckley. "We know this race is going to a runoff. You can vote your conscience."
Buckley, the Libertarian candidate for the United States Senate in Georgia, was looking straight into the bevy of local TV cameras at the Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) studio, recording this sixth and final candidate debate. On his left was Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who led comfortably in polls before the economy crashed and he voted for the $700 billion bailout. On Chambliss' left was Democrat Jim Martin, a former state representative who, to his delight, has surged into a tie thanks to millions of dollars in TV ads paid for by a party hungrily eyeing its 60th Senate seat.
This last-minute tightening has placed Buckley in the unfamiliar position of potentially affecting an election. He has run twice before for statewide office—two years ago he campaigned against Martin for lieutenant governor, and they both lost. But those races were not close enough for most voters to concern themselves much with Buckley's shy presentation and his relentless use of Government Accountability Office numbers to explain how current levels of federal spending are unsustainable.
The bailout cut right to Buckley's message. "I was against it, and I explained what I wanted to do instead," he explained before the debate. "I like tax cuts but only when they're matched with spending cuts, and I've proposed a 25 percent across-the-board cut in spending apart from Social Security. If we did that right now it would balance the budget, allow the Social Security surplus to be funded, and provide for tax cuts."
Neither of Buckley's opponents care to get that specific about slashing government. "I'm running against two Democrats, basically," Buckley grumbled as a GPB attendant pointed him toward the green room. Cobb County Libertarian activist David Chastain put it a little differently: "He's running against two socialists."
One of those "socialists" will win on or after Tuesday. If neither Chambliss nor Martin draw more than 50 percent of the vote, then by Georgia law they will battle in a run-off election to be held four weeks later. National Republican and Democratic money and bodies will swarm in with a force not seen since Sherman's March.
With such potential responsibility on his hands, Buckley spent the final debate bloodying up both candidates.
Chambliss, a tall, smug pol who combines the sneer of Spiro Agnew with the studied folksiness of Boss Hogg, tried to plain-talk his way through his support for the bailout on the first question of the night by maintaining that banks were just "fixin' to fail." Martin criticized that, so Chambliss shot back: "He's been for it, he's been against it, he's been for it, and tonight it's popular for him to be against it."
Buckley entered the conversation. "I called the GAO," he said, "and asked if this trend toward unsustainable deficits would continue under the policies of both major parties. They told me it would. I am the only candidate providing answers." But the Libertarian was left out of a finger-wagging exchange between the two major-party candidates over which banks, exactly, were benefiting unfairly from the bailout. "Can I get equal time here?" Buckley asked. The moderators passed.
Chambliss attributed the nationwide fall in gas prices to his vote to end the ban on offshore oil drilling, though he humbly acknowledged that "we [Republicans] can't take 100 percent of the credit." Buckley snorted audibly. "You can take zero percent of the credit, because that's what you're entitled to!" Chambliss laughed and half-patted the much shorter Buckley on the back. "The GAO probably told him to say that, too."
When Buckley got his chance to ask Chambliss a direct question he rattled off how much non-defense spending had increased in the Republican's Senate career, waved his notes, and asked, "What would you cut?"
"Alan, you should have taken your pill tonight," Chambliss replied.
"You need the whole bottle!" Buckley responded.
The somnolent studio audience cracked up. Chambliss drew back his lips like a crossbow. That was the last cheap shot he'd take at Buckley, who then used his question for Martin to ask "what has Senator Chambliss failed to do" about entitlement spending. Chambliss replied by accusing the Libertarian of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare.
"Not true," said Buckley. He looked up from his notes and into the camera. "A U.S. senator just lied to you."
Buckley explained that he wanted a referendum on Social Security with the voters deciding whether to raise FICA taxes or not. Was it a dodge? Arguably, but that just laid the tracks for moderators to ask Chambliss about his support for the Fair Tax, the theoretical sales tax that would replace the income tax. "He's using all of you Fair Tax zealots because he's lost you on the real issues," Buckley said. "When the Republicans ran everything, he could have introduced a Fair Tax bill. Why didn't he, if he's such a good leader?"
Buckley closed his remarks with attacks on both candidates. Martin was a "good man" who wouldn't make a great senator, while "Saxby Chambliss is not, and never will be a great senator." He asked for people to support him, which would set up a runoff. And with that, he closed his final debate.
Local news reporters swarmed Buckley, Chambliss, and Martin after the lights dimmed. Before and after the debate, Buckley declined to say who he'd support in a runoff. (Given the chance to imagine actually winning, he called it a theoretical "gunshot heard around the world that would represent real change, not Obama change.")
"Alan was really good tonight," said Jim Martin as he spotted Georgia Libertarian Party Chair Daniel Adams. Buckley returned the favor. "Jim's a pleasant guy." He did not have similarly kind words for Chambliss.
An hour later, Adams joined a number of LP activists at a house they've subletted to the Bob Barr campaign's surplus staff. Fox 5 led its broadcast with Buckley calling Chambliss a "liar." But other than that, the third-party candidate barely made it into the final report. Editors included Chambliss' "pill" insult, but cut the Buckley comeback.
It was telling. If he forces a runoff, Buckley will become one of the pivotal politicians of election 2008. Close races are the surest way of drawing attention to Libertarians. Earlier that day, Bob Barr had noted that his uptick in local media coverage came as polls showed McCain's lead over Obama collapsing. There was a spoiler story to write again! But for one more election, despite the issues, despite the debate, that's the only story the rest of the media will write about Buckley.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.