ATLANTA -- With every statewide office contested this fall and many Georgia lawmakers facing opposition, Labor Day sets off a mad scramble that, in the end, may be decided by a polo instructor, a machinist, a neurosurgeon and a high school physics teacher.
That's because the Libertarians, often considered little more than gnats on Georgia's electoral landscape, could prove a deciding factor in close elections this fall.
"Based on what they've done in the past, they are good for three or four (percentage) points, maybe more. Sure it will have an effect," said Bobby Kahn of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Roy Barnes' campaign.
"I am going to be a very significant factor in the race," promised Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Jack Cashin, an Alpharetta horse and ostrich farmer who also teaches polo.
"The Democrats want to get into our pocketbooks and spend our money, and the Republicans want to get into our bedrooms. I believe a lot more people are taking us seriously than ever before."
However, Mark Bierley, a Carrollton machinist running for agriculture commissioner, acknowledges it hasn't been easy.
"It's tough selling freedom and liberty. Most people ask, `What can you give me?"' he said. "But I think the Libertarian Party is going to have a huge impact on this election. People are so fed up with Democrats and Republicans."
Libertarians have been running for years in Georgia. But they have been limited to the role of occasional spoilers, such as when they forced a runoff in the U.S. Senate contest in 1992 or when they were credited with siphoning enough votes from Republican U.S Senate nominee Guy Millner in 1996 to give Democrat Max Cleland a seat in Washington.
Later reviews of voting records suggested Mr. Cashin probably took as much from Mr. Cleland as Mr. Millner, but in a tight race, his 81,262 votes -- about 3.6 percent of the total -- were vital.
Major statewide races have become so close in recent years that Democrats and Republicans have to take the Libertarian vote into consideration.
In fact, Atlanta neurosurgeon and Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Bert Loftman earlier this year accused U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., of trying to get him to drop out of the race. Mr. Coverdell did not respond to the charge.
This fall Libertarians -- who advocate dramatically less government -- are fielding candidates in every statewide race.
Besides Mr. Cashin, Mr. Bierley and Mr. Loftman, there's Michael Cartwright, a Gwinnett County physics teacher running for state school superintendent. The job involves heading Georgia's public school system, but Mr. Cartwright supports tax credits for private schools.
For secretary of state, Libertarians are offering Mark Antieau, an Alpharetta business consultant who promises to cut the office's budget 75 percent "and improve services."
For insurance commissioner, they have Chamblee's Joshua Batchelder, who says he's in the business of selling "insurance investments" and vows to reduce premiums 10 percent to 30 percent.
For attorney general, the party has Walker Chandler, a Zebulon lawyer who helped nix the state's law forcing candidates to take drug tests.
On the national level, Libertarians support legalizing drug sales, prostitution and gambling; want to eliminate restrictions on immigration; and oppose income taxes and compulsory registration for the military.
Mr. Bierley says he doesn't have a connection to agriculture, even though he's running to unseat longtime Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.
"The whole point of the race from the beginning was to draw attention to the Libertarian Party, to make people aware there was a third party and there was a choice," he said. "Being a Libertarian, I'd like to see less government, lower taxes, to try to reduce the size and scope of government."
If any Libertarian candidate is familiar to Georgians, it's Mr. Cashin, primarily because he played the role of calm-headed aspirant while Mr. Millner and Mr. Cleland went at each other in the 1996 U.S. Senate debates.
This time he faces Mr. Millner and Mr. Barnes for governor.
The motto on his Internet web site is "failure is the fertilizer of success." He lists more than 40 endeavors, from chocolates salesman to Augusta and Atlanta restaurateur, on his resume.
Mr. Cashin sees the Libertarian Party as the future home of Republicans who don't feel particularly comfortable with their party's connection to the Religious Right.
Those Georgians, he said, could help him get 10 to 15 percent of the vote this year, enough to send the governor's race into a runoff.
If that happens, he will throw his support to the candidate who promises to fight for ballot access for Libertarians and is willing to appoint party members to key boards.
He also wants the winner to create a commission to investigate and eliminate waste in government.
"My premise is, it's stupid to say, `I'm going to eliminate your taxes and all will be well,"' he said. "You can't do that unless you reduce the need for taxes."
Lee Raudonis, who worked on Democrat Steve Langford's unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign and is now helping Mr. Cashin, acknowledges Libertarian predictions of winning 10 to 15 percent of the votes this fall are unrealistic.
But in statewide races where Democrats and Republicans could both wind up garnering in the range of 46 to 49 percent of the ballots, even a small number of votes may swing an election.
"In the final analysis with any third party, it's the frustration factor," Mr. Raudonis said. "It's the people who say, `I don't like Barnes, I don't like Millner.
"We've just got to be out there with some issues so they don't think he (Mr. Cashin) is a kook."