By Timothy Pratt
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - The Libertarian Party chooses a presidential nominee on Saturday, who it hopes can capitalize on the Republican White House candidacy of Ron Paul and his focus on party values like small government and a non-interventionist foreign policy.
While Paul is not expected to attend the convention in Las Vegas or run as the Libertarian candidate, his small but devoted following in Republican primaries this year has buoyed Libertarians.
"Our friend Ron Paul has made people aware of a lot of issues that are important to us," said Carla Howell, executive director of the national Libertarian Party. "If Ron Paul loses the Republican nomination, where are they going to go? They will make the choice to vote for the Libertarian nominee."
Paul, who ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988, is the last remaining challenger to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The Texas congressman is far behind in the polls and has not won a single nominating contest.
The Libertarian convention began on Thursday and is expected to attract at least 600 delegates. Voting will take place on Saturday to pick a nominee for the November 6 election when Democratic President Barack Obama will seek re-election.
Howell said the two candidates seen as favorites among the six contenders were former New Mexico Republican Governor Gary Johnson and Air Force veteran R. Lee Wrights.
"We are poised to get more votes, more media coverage and more interest than perhaps any time in history," Howell said of the party, which wants government to stay out of the lives of citizens.
Third parties have traditionally fared poorly in the two-party U.S. political system long dominated by Republicans and Democrats. The Libertarians' best presidential showing came in 1980 when nominee Ed Clark won 921,128 votes or 1.1 percent. In the 2008 election, party nominee Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman, got 523,686 votes or 0.4 percent.
Johnson said in December he would run for president as a Libertarian. As an initial long-shot Republican contender for president, he proposed cutting government spending, reducing taxes and legalizing marijuana.
As New Mexico governor from 1995 to 2003, Johnson vetoed so many bills - some 750 - that he was later nicknamed "Governor Veto."
Wrights said on his website he hoped the Libertarian message this year would be an anti-war one.
"Stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stop the war on drugs and alternative lifestyles, stop the war on civil liberties - stop all war," he said.
Las Vegas political analyst Jon Ralston said many supporters of Paul, who polls show commands about 12 percent support among Republicans, may ultimately back the eventual Libertarian candidate.
"This could be important in swing states like Nevada," Ralston said. "But to what end - to re-elect Obama?"
(Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)