Barr’s curious political path circles back to familiar ground

Bob Barr’s long and winding political path has brought him to a curious crossroads: He is seeking a congressional job he once held for the party he once bolted.

Barr has traveled about northwest Atlanta in recent weeks to burnish his image as a conservative who already knows how to wield the levers of power in Congress if he’s elected to replace Rep. U.S. Phil Gingrey, now a U.S. Senate candidate.

But he also is attempting to run as an independent agent, exiled from Washington in the decade since he lost to a fellow Republican incumbent after an unfriendly redistricting.

“I’ve been there. I’ve done it. I’ve accomplished things,” Barr said. “And we need to do that again. And we can’t do that with a novice. We don’t have time for that right now.”

His comeback bid faces stiff opposition. State House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey has already joined the race, and other well-known Republicans could soon follow. Barr’s enemies within and without the GOP are eager to paint him as a political chameleon willing to shed his controversial views when the timing fits.

“He’s had an interesting, somewhat quixotic wandering over the past 12 years,” Lindsey said. “While he’s been doing that, I’ve been doing the hard work of governing.”

A former CIA analyst and one-time federal prosecutor, Barr was elected to Congress in the GOP wave of 1994 led by fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich. Over time, he built an often controversial record as a staunchly conservative — and eminently quotable — national figure who smiled rarely and slept in his office often.

He crusaded against medical marijuana and sought to ban Wicca from being practiced on military bases. His biggest legislative victory was sponsoring the Defense of Marriage Act, the controversial ban on same-sex marriage that’s now being weighed by the Supreme Court.

At the time, he warned that the “flames of hedonism … are licking at the very foundations of our society — the family unit,” even as his opponents pointed to his three marriages.

“He was just the epitome of bigotry,” said former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., an openly gay liberal who often feuded with Barr. “You can be very loud and very active but not on the mean side. He was not just conservative but mean.”

Barr was best known for leading the effort to impeach President Bill Clinton even before Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern became public. Clinton’s actions were “symptoms of a cancer on the American presidency,” Barr said, that threatened America’s international standing.

But his strident attacks made some Republicans wary that he couldn’t effectively make their case. In fact, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde initially left Barr off the list of House managers who were to prosecute the case in the Senate.

The take-no-prisoners rhetoric made him a juicy target. Ahead of the 2002 election, the Democratic-controlled Legislature redrew his district to pack it with Democrats, so Barr jumped into the GOP-leaning district of fellow Republican U.S. Rep. John Linder and lost the primary.

Barr’s failed campaign was marred by a wave of negative attention after he accidentally misfired an antique pistol at a fundraiser, leading Linder to label him a “loose cannon.”

By 2006, Barr joined the Libertarian Party, explaining that the expansion of the executive branch after the Sept. 11 terror attacks had forever changed his political outlook. Within two years, he was the party’s presidential candidate and running away from his record in the GOP. That included a call for the repeal of the gay marriage ban and scaling back his once fervent support of the War on Drugs.

After that failed campaign — Barr drew less than 1 percent of the vote — he returned to practicing law, working as a consultant and, for a time, writing columns that appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In many ways, Barr was ahead of his time, considering the GOP’s recent rightward shift.

“He used to raise some hackles because he didn’t go along with leadership on some of their initiatives there,” said former U.S. Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., “but on the other hand he’s probably a pretty good fit today with a lot of the tea party types.”

Barr’s comeback bid could prove daunting — and expensive. His campaign hopes to raise more than $3 million to plaster its message across the district, which spans from north Atlanta and Sandy Springs through parts of Cobb County, to Cherokee and Bartow counties.

Lindsey, who represents a wealthy Atlanta district, says he’s confident his fundraising will keep pace. Several other influential Republicans are also considering runs, including state Sen. Barry Loudermilk and Tricia Pridemore, who resigned last week as head of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development. No Democrats have filed paperwork yet to run in the conservative district.

Analysts say Barr’s name recognition should give him an early boost, but that his image could cut both ways.

“Barr has some baggage from previous campaigns and his service in office,” said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist. “Some Republicans may also not take kindly to Barr jumping back and forth from the GOP to the Libertarian Party and back again.”

Expect that to be a recurring theme. Indeed, when Lindsey announced his candidacy last week, he did it with a pointed question for Barr. Reciting a quote from the “I Love Lucy” show, Lindsey said Barr has “got a lot of explaining to do.”

When pressed on that question, Barr repeatedly dodged.

“We’ll have plenty of time for the voters of the district to learn about our conservative agenda,” Barr said.

His aides say to expect a more mellow Barr. He now drinks four shots of Starbucks espresso at a time — down from five — and even his mother has advised him to shake off his image of a dour politician.

“When I told her I was running, she said I should smile more,” Barr said, doing his level best to stifle one.

At this early stage of the race, Barr is trying to depict himself as the front-runner. He tells voters that he’s been promised he’ll retain the eight years of seniority he earned if he wins. (A spokesman for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said a returning member would get credit for seniority in committees on which he served.)

He says he left the GOP because it had strayed from the hands-off “libertarianism ideals with a small ‘l’ ” but returned when it gravitated back to those roots.

His opening campaign events outline the challenges ahead. In Buckhead, some voters eagerly pledged their support. But he drew unfamiliar stares from others who didn’t remember the Barr media barrage of the 1990s. One of them was Al Pishvaei, a 34-year-old medical supply salesman who hadn’t heard of Barr until meeting him.

“He’s very welcoming but at the same time forceful,” Pishvaei said.

Winning over the people who do know his record will be a separate challenge.

“He wants to get things moving and happening again. It’s familiar rhetoric, but he’s been there and done it,” said Scott Reiser, a technology consultant who remains uncommitted. “I’m not making my mind up yet. There’s a year and a half to go.”