By Elizabeth Dias
Virgil Goode glides through the doors of a McDonald's in Farmville, VA, at 11:52 am and instantly three construction workers in the back booth rise to their feet. "I've been wanting to shake your hand a long time, sir," says Jeremy Clay of nearby Evington, extending a hand to the former Congressman. His buddy Jeremy Rawlings of Lynchburg does the same, and asks which line to sign on Goode's petition to get on the presidential ballot. "If Obama gets re-elected, we're all doomed," Rawlings says as he scrawls his name. Goode asks in his Virginia drawl how business is faring. Two postal workers who have joined the group shake their heads--"We're on the line," one says. Goode asks about their families as they take photos on their cell phones. Then he orders a vanilla ice cream cone and heads down Main Street to gather more names.
Goode is running for president on the Constitution Party ticket, and his candidacy has Republicans sweating: Goode is pulling fully 9% of Virginia's vote, according to a mid-July Public Policy Polling survey, leaving Obama ahead of Romney 49% to 35%. In a tight election where Virginia's 13 electoral college votes could make or break the Romney's candidacy, even 2% for Goode could pull enough Republicans away to hand the historically red state to Obama in November.
Goode could easily maintain at least a few percentage points in Virginia through the fall. He remains a popular local figure who served in the Virginia State Senate for 24 years and then then represented VA's 5th district in the U.S. House until 2009. His platform is simple--he can recite it under 15 seconds. "One: balance the budget now, not later. Two: Get Americans jobs by ending illegal immigration and making legal immigration harder. Lastly: Impose term limits."
It's a message that appeals to many voters in rural, small-town Virginia. His Old Dominion charm is a break from a national race that can often seem impersonal. Goode remembers where his former constituents' kids go to school, when their siblings moved to a nearby county, and how their family businesses have fared for the past two or three generations. He opens all his own doors--and all doors for his staffers--and makes sure that women enter first. He attends Pleasant Hill Methodist Church (though he's Baptist) and spends his days on the trail at chicken festivals and gun shoots. To top it off, he narrowly missed giving a speech at a memorial dedication because he stopped en route to save a beagle who was hit by a truck--he even paid a passerby to drive the dog to the vet before he continued on his way.
Many supporters in Farmville support Goode for his conservative economics and social policies. He wants to eliminate foreign aid, issue a moratorium on 1.2 million green cards, and audit the Federal Reserve. For James Ailsworth, owner of Farmville's Key's Office Supply store, signing Goode's ballot petition comes down to just one issue. "Which side of the check do your supporters sign? We've got a guy up there who signs the back side," he says, referring to Obama and the national debt. Goode doesn't miss a beat. "Front side." Ailsworth grabs a pen: "I'll sign." A woman in the checkout line signed up because of Goode's immigration positions--he doesn't support automatic U.S. citizenship for children born of undocumented parents, saying that the policy misconstrues an amendment to the Constitution, and he believes that showing a birth or naturalization certificate should be required to receive social service benefits. "You're like I am," she says. "We take care of our own first."
Beyond Virginia, Goode has his work cut out for him. The Richmond native has already made it onto the ballot in 17 states and aims to expand that number to 40. Only 477,000 Americans are known to be registered Constitution Party voters, according to records from their national headquarters (whose phone number happens to be 1-800-2-VETO-IRS). But that figure does not take into account states like Virginia, where voter registration by party is not required. Goode hopes to have some success in Pennsylvania, home state of his running mate, Jim Clymer. He's also focusing on key swing states like Ohio, Florida and Missouri.
Goode readily admits his odds of winning the White House are long. He forgoes fundraisers and declines PAC donations, caps individual contributions at $200, and relies on just four staff members, only one of whom is full time. He says he's lucky to raise $1,000/week. But that is his whole point. "If you want big money candidates, you've got two great ones running," he says. "Maybe a day or two before the election, the American people will wake up and say, We've had enough."
So, considering the close contest, does Goode see a vote for him as a vote for Obama? "No," he says. "I'm taking votes away from Obama as well as Romney." So far no one from the Romney camp has tried to dissuade him from running, Goode says. At least not yet. But one thing is for sure: Goode is almost guaranteed to be on Virginia's ballot. He has already has collected 17,000 signatures, well beyond the 10,000 required by the state's August 24 deadline. And if there's one state where he can make a difference, it's his own.