Virgil Goode knows his obscure presidential run on the Constitution Party ticket vexes his former Republican comrades, a thought that produces a sly smile he can't suppress. He doesn't really try.
To Virginia Republicans, however, the eccentric former GOP congressman from bucolic Rocky Mount threatens to peel away conservative votes from Mitt Romney and, in a close race, hand Virginia's 13 electoral votes and possibly four more years to President Barack Obama. Virginia is among the nine states where the Nov. 6 election likely will be decided.
"You do realize that you could singlehandedly make Obama win the national election this fall, even though Mitt Romney stands for many of same things that you have said you support," said 17-year-old Mitchell Swann, an E.C. Glass High School senior and president of its Young Republicans Club, after Goode spoke on the Lynchburg campus.
Recent polls show Obama about even or slightly ahead of Romney in head-to-head Virginia pairings by 4 to 8 percentage points. Only one, a Washington Post poll of 934 registered Virginia voters conducted Sept. 12-16, included Goode, and he was the choice of 2 percent. The poll's sampling error margin is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
"He's still a household name in some parts of Virginia," said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "Unlike other candidates, Virgil Goode has the potential to siphon off a sizable number of votes regionally."
Rozell said that if it comes down to Virginia in a very close election, Goode could draw 1 percent to 2 percent of the vote to become this year's Ralph Nader, although statistically it's unlikely.
Many Democrats consider Nader, a consumer activist and 2000 Green Party presidential candidate, a spoiler who cost Al Gore the election. Nader denies the claim. He drew about 100,000 votes that year in Florida's razor-thin contest, which went to George W. Bush.
Goode hears it every day from Republicans in all 29 states where he is on the ballot, but particularly in Virginia. They urge him to quit. They hire A-list law firms to present alleged improprieties to state election boards and strip him from the ballot — a maneuver that succeeded in Pennsylvania but failed in Virginia. Publicly, they dismiss him as irrelevant. Privately they say he's running only to salve his ego, while some imply he's gone a bit daffy the past few years.
"A vote for Virgil Goode is a vote for Barack Obama, and I think people are smart enough to know that," said Pat Mullins, Virginia's wily GOP chairman since 2009. Under Mullins' watch, Republicans have roared back from 2008's dispiriting defeats, including Goode's ouster from Congress and the first Democratic presidential victory in Virginia since 1964.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has said Goode won't be a factor in Virginia's presidential contest.
Goode, a lanky, 65-year-old country lawyer, has one full-time campaign staffer and three part-timers. His motorcade is his cluttered Honda Accord, and he drives it. He's his own fundraiser. He professes surprise at the GOP reaction to a rival of such meager means. Through August, Goode had raised $15,000, added $40,000 of his own and had $8,430 on hand, according to his most recent Federal Election Commission filing.
"The Republicans in different states have just overreacted," said Goode, who has changed party labels four times since he was elected to Congress in 1996.
"I think I will get even more votes from disgruntled Democrats or people who were going to stay home and not vote because there's no choice," Goode said. He notes he's the only candidate running without big-money backing.
Democrats remember Goode's contrarian streak. His turning point with them came in 1998 when he voted with House Republicans to impeach President Bill Clinton. He was re-elected in 2000 as an independent endorsed by the GOP.
He joined the GOP in 2002, and by 2008, Republicans had felt Goode's rebelliousness when he opposed a $700 billion financial rescue program in defiance of George W. Bush's White House and the House GOP Conference.
Goode lost re-election to Democrat Tom Perriello by 745 votes, or less than one-fourth of 1 percent of the 316,862 ballots cast, in the Obama-led 2008 Democratic tsunami.
Many Virginians, when they meet Goode, think he is campaigning to regain his old House seat.
That's what Doug Baldock, a retired 63-year-old truck driver from Madison Heights, assumed the afternoon Goode breezed into The Right Barber Shop on Main Street in Lynchburg where the regulars were huddled, talking sports and politics. Baldock's eyes widened when he was told Goode was running for president, and he took a second look at the campaign brochure Goode had handed him.
"Well he sure is," Baldock said. "Good. I've been looking for a way not to vote for either Obama or Romney."
In Farmville, 68-year-old retired chemical worker and Air Force veteran Harry Donahue said he voted for Republican John McCain for president in 2008 and had considered Romney this year before deciding to support Obama.
As for Goode? "I know there are a lot of people still on the fence out there, but no, I don't think Goode is going to hurt the Republican ticket."
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