Revenge of the Nuts

Liberals believe the Constitution Party may be their best ally against Bush. Reality disagrees.

The Liars, with the Young People and Roué Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Road 9 p.m. Thursday, March 18; $12, 216-383-1124
Patrick Johnston: "Prominent Ohio evangelist" or - right-wing wack-job? - Kevin  Hoffman
Patrick Johnston: "Prominent Ohio evangelist" or right-wing wack-job?
The Constitution Party wants to abolish welfare and immigration, kick the U.N. out of America, and ban the federal government from meddling in education. Its presumptive presidential candidate, Michael Peroutka, refers to gays as "sodomites." Its official platform reads as if it were written in 1830.

None of this has stopped liberals from gleefully cheering the party on. They see the Constitution Party as this year's Ralph Nader, a hardcore Christian movement that may siphon votes from President Bush and throw the election to John Kerry.

The theory, proffered by such voices of the lefty intelligentsia as Slate and The Nation, largely centers on Roy Moore, the Alabama Supreme Court justice who was famously fired for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse. Moore, who's been speaking at party gatherings around the country -- but has denied that he has any intention of running for President -- has the kind of Christian cachet that could unite the hard right into a legitimate third party. Or so the logic goes.

Yet fanciful third-party theories are a rite of election year. Most flop long before the votes are tallied. And if Ohio is any indication, this one will flop like a perch on the Edgewater Park pier.

The crowd at the High Street Baptist Church in Columbus doesn't look capable of toppling a president. It's composed mostly of old people, a few middle-aged guys in suits, and one woman in Amish attire. They fit comfortably on the church basketball court, where they listen to rants against Big Government that sound like Howard Dean's scream speech with the amp turned to 11. To summon new recruits, they're raffling off a semi-automatic rifle, displayed on a nearby table.

Welcome to the Constitution Party's state convention.

At the center of it all is Patrick Johnston, the state party's second-in-command. Slate called him a "prominent Ohio evangelist." It's a curious description. A doctor by trade, he's a preacher by disposition; his prominence is the kind you get from showing up on college squares to tell students they'll go to hell for their sinful lifestyles. After the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he railed that the injured people "were getting high and getting drunk" and that "the bomb of God's judgment is about to go off!"

When Johnston isn't practicing his unique brand of street preaching, he can be found typing screeds on his favorite topics. In the age of the internet, one guy with a computer can quickly go from anonymous crank to "prominent evangelist."

Among his most popular works -- at least among liberals -- is an essay titled "Why Christians Should Not Vote for George W. Bush." Johnston argues that Bush betrayed Christians by appointing gays to prominent posts and by not outlawing abortion. He urges fellow travelers to vote their conscience -- even if it costs Bush the election.

"I think the Republican Party takes principled conservatives for granted," Johnston says before seeing the next patient at his family practice outside Columbus. "They can either return to the right, or we'll take the flock away from them."

Johnston makes a good public face. He's handsome, with a strawberry-blond wife, three beautiful children, and a brand-new baby -- the very portrait of a wholesome American family. When he isn't lost in a tirade about seceding from the Union, he's intelligent and well spoken, and brings a doctor's clear thinking to a political wing usually occupied by gun nuts and conspiracy theorists.

"Bush has been worse than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, so why vote for him?" Johnston reasons. "I think if Kerry got elected, our nation would be much better off, because conservatives in Congress would fight him."

But while liberals in New York delight at such sentiments from a right-winger in the meat-and-potatoes Midwest, the Constitution Party hasn't exactly found a receptive audience here. Its 2000 presidential candidate received a paltry 3,823 votes in Ohio -- not enough to win a lot of suburban mayoral races. By comparison, the Natural Law Party, an obscure lefty group, managed almost twice as many.

"We have a lot more admirers than we do voters," Johnston concedes. "But that's gonna change."

Nor does the party have much of a national following. While boosters never fail to point out that it's the nation's third-largest party -- based on registered voters -- a huge chunk of those are in California. And as it turns out, the California branch goes by a somewhat misleading name: The American Independent Party. Even party insiders concede that many Californians probably signed up thinking they were registering as independents.

None of this seems to discourage Johnston. "Republicans need to be more concerned about us than they are the Democrats," he boasts. So convinced is he of the threat he poses that he hints darkly about repercussions. When asked his age, he responds, "Thirty-three. Old enough to be crucified . . . And the Republican Party is gonna try."

But Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, has what is perhaps a more realistic take: "The Constitution Party is just not on the map."

All of which means that if the Democrats want to win in Ohio or anywhere else, they'll likely have to do it the old-fashioned way: by fielding the best candidate.

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