By Karen G. Jackovich
September 22, 1980 12:00 PM

Ed Clark, 50, admits he has virtually no chance to win the U.S. presidency, but tilting at windmills comes naturally to his increasingly pesky, 1.3 million-member Libertarian party. Besides, as he points out, “A recent poll shows that 55 percent of the registered voters are not interested in Carter, Reagan or Anderson. They could want me. It’s not probable but possible.”

Improbable indeed. Clark envies even John Anderson’s tenuous recognition by the League of Women Voters, and if invited would truly muddy any debates. Clark’s party, founded only eight years ago, has a motley, controversial creed that attracts extremists of the left and right—and confounds them both. In general, the platform is seductive—less government, more freedom—but in specifics it becomes less so. Libertarians call for an end to mandatory public education; phasing out of social security and welfare; dismantling of all federal regulatory agencies plus the FBI and CIA; a neutralist foreign policy; and the repeal, among other things, of laws against abortion, gambling, drugs and prostitution. “I’m not going to use drugs or see prostitutes,” Clark has stressed, “but I don’t think we should legislate morality.” Says his communications director, Ed Crane, with a smile: “We have something to offend everyone.”

Yet this year the Libertarians are mounting their most credible campaign to date, packaging Clark in five-minute network spots for which they plan to spend a third of their $3.5 million budget (raised mostly through small contributions). Clark’s Reaganesque pompadour has been made over by John Travolta’s hairstylist, and he has moderated his pitch to suit a wider audience. “I think it’s important not to repackage your personality or change your ideas,” argues Clark. “We’re just trying to communicate more forcefully.”

His party has found a small but receptive audience. In 1972, the year it was launched, its presidential candidate won only 5,000 votes in two states. In 1976 the Libertarian candidate ran in 32 states and collected some 170,000 votes. In 1978 the party fielded 200 candidates for a variety of offices and amassed 1.3 million votes, even winning a seat in the Alaska legislature. In California’s gubernatorial election that year, Clark himself got 5.5 percent of the vote against Jerry Brown’s 56 percent. “I decided to become a presidential candidate after that showing,” Clark says proudly. This year his party expects to be on the ballot in all 50 states.

Clark’s credentials are first-rate. The son of a Massachusetts judge, he graduated from Dartmouth in 1952, served as a Navy gunnery officer during the Korean war, then earned his law degree from Harvard in 1957. He joined a fancy Wall Street law firm and specialized in antitrust cases. A liberal Republican then, Clark traces his sudden change of heart to Nixon’s wage-price freeze in 1971. “That was a great blow to the free market system,” he says. “I felt betrayed and said, ‘Never again.’ ” Soon after, he joined the fledgling Libertarian party.

A bachelor most of his life, Clark married Mexican-born textile executive Alicia Garcia Cobos in 1970 and four years later moved to Los Angeles to take over the legal department of Atlantic Richfield. Now on leave of absence “so I can devote my time to the campaign,” he lives in San Marino, a chic L.A. suburb, with Alicia, 52, and their adopted son, Edward Jr., 6.

How can he expect U.S. voters to follow a party line as extreme as the Libertarians’? “People who vote for us are attracted by a desire for freedom in a particular area,” he explains. “The parent of someone facing the draft might vote for us, or a retired person whose savings are being eroded by inflation.” Clark is convinced he has the makings of a “major new coalition” in such special grievances. If that means relying more on the piecemeal failures of others than on a generally attractive program of his own, so much the better. “As government screws up more and more,” Clark says cheerfully, “we’ll grow and grow.”