All the faith in the world, and all the vagaries of the 2004 election map, may not be sufficient to the Constitution Party's task this fall without a sterling performance from the man at the top of its ticket. When World Magazine headlined a profile of Michael Peroutka, "Can This Man Be Bush's Nader?" it drew an arrow straight to the party's biggest question mark.
Peroutka is an unknown quantity, a political novice who entered the race about as well known as well, Chuck Baldwin.
The blond-haired, blue-eyed, 53-year-old became a Constitution Party favorite by launching the Institute for the Constitution, which peddles 12-week seminars teaching a Biblical version of the U.S. government. His membership in the League of the South has helped bring neo-Confederates into the Constitution Party.
But Peroutka largely won the nomination the old-fashioned way: As of June, according to the Federal Election Commission, Peroutka had dished out nearly $160,000 to the Constitution Party and its candidates since 2000. His brother and law partner, Stephen Peroutka, chipped in $60,000 in the same time period.
By the end of May, Peroutka had loaned his own campaign $120,000 small change in the world of major-party politics, but reason enough for Howard Phillips to call the nominee a "godsend" for a struggling party whose coffers contained less than $10,000 last January.
With his aging altar-boy looks, his handsome clutch of home-schooled children, and his politician's knack for appearing completely delighted to meet every supporter and shake every hand, Peroutka certainly looks the part. He wisely honed his message and raised his name recognition by introducing Roy Moore on several stops of his speaking tour.
Aside from riding Moore's coattails, Peroutka appears to be pursuing a smart campaign strategy: Buy cheap ads on right-wing Web sites, visit as much of the country as possible, get free publicity on conservative talk shows, and leave no doubt that your message is a dead-ringer for that of the "Ten Commandments Judge."
"The God of the Bible must be first," Peroutka often tells audiences, "because ... He says so!" Making his pitch to Christian Republicans, Peroutka's strongest argument comes from the Bible: "It's just as wrong to vote for Gomorrah as it is to vote for a slightly more evil Sodom."
Peroutka's wholesome appeal as "the home-school candidate" was undercut by a scathing profile this spring in Baltimore City Paper. Though Peroutka likes to preach family responsibility and criticize state-funded programs for kids (often proclaiming in campaign speeches, "The state has no children!"), reporter Van Smith discovered that the candidate had disowned two teenage stepdaughters who accused him of abuse, turning them over to the state of Maryland and rebuffing their subsequent attempts to reconcile with their mother.
Peroutka's public record also includes a conviction for driving with an illegally high concentration of alcohol in his system in 1991, and questions have been raised about his sudden rise to wealth. "Just a few years ago," Smith says, "the Peroutkas were living in cul-de-sac townhouse developments, and suddenly they're in this huge new house" valued at well over half a million dollars.
Peroutka's response to City Paper's financial questions was pious but vague: "I am thankful to God from whom all blessings flow."
The exposť appeared to have muted the enthusiasm for Peroutka in Valley Forge, where his acceptance speech was polished and inflammatory "What kind of country sends sodomites to fight in an unconstitutional, undeclared war?" but greeted mostly with polite applause.
"Well, he's not perfect," said party activist Becky Lynn Black. "But that's true of everyone over 40. It's called life experience."
Maybe so, but Peroutka's hard knocks could imperil the enthusiasm the Constitution Party needs from its members this fall. Fortunately for Peroutka, George W. Bush and the far-right propagandists who despise him are doing most of the work for his campaign. The extremist backlash might be all the Constitution Party needs to put a scare into the GOP and into the liberals who once dared to dream.