During the Republican primaries, conservatives turned to one candidate after another to be the right’s alternative to Mitt Romney: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and finally Rick Santorum. One by one, their campaigns fizzled. Now, with the nomination in Romney’s grasp, conservatives seem to have run out of choices.

Virgil Goode wants to remind them not to settle. So serious was the former congressman about expanding conservatives’ options this November that he secured the presidential nomination of the Constitution Party, which has spent the last two decades trying convince conservative Christians and constitutionalists that there is a purer, more principled alternative to the GOP. “I’m in it to win it,” Goode says, fusing a slogan of Hillary Clinton’s with a platform to the right of Barry Goldwater.

Goode isn’t a household name, but he is the most politically experienced nominee in the Constitution Party’s 20-year history. He has won more elections than Romney and President Barack Obama combined, starting with a special election to the Virginia state senate when he was just 27. Back then Goode was a Democrat, though a staunch conservative. “Conservatives used to be a majority in the [Virginia] Democratic Party,” he explains. “The party has changed.”

A Southern gentleman with a quiet drawl, Goode hails from what former senator and governor George Allen once described as “the real Virginia.” He defended the tobacco industry and lamented the possibility that his mother might be denied the “one last pleasure” of a final cigarette on her deathbed. He railed against gambling and gun control. Goode was an early supporter of Douglas Wilder, the Democrat who became the state’s first black governor.

But Goode was never a party loyalist. He ran twice for the U.S. Senate against party-approved Democratic candidates, losing the nomination both times. In 1996, Goode nearly threw control of the Virginia state Senate to the Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction. Instead he forced a power-sharing agreement between the two parties, with conservative Democrats like himself standing in the balance.

This didn’t make Virginia Democrats happy, but it didn’t stop him from winning his party’s nomination for Congress in the Southside of the state that same year. He was elected with 61 percent of the vote. Still in his first term, Goode was one of just five Democrats to vote in favor of impeaching President Bill Clinton in 1998. He ran unopposed for reelection that November.

By this point, it wasn’t clear whether Goode had had enough of the Democratic Party or the other way around. He ran for reelection as an independent in 2000 and won in a 67 percent landslide. Goode proclaimed himself as “independent as the people he represents,” but he started caucusing with the Republicans for organizational purposes. He ran for reelection under the GOP banner in 2002—becoming the first Republican to represent his district since 1889—and remained the party’s nominee in the next three elections.

Goode lost his House seat in 2008 by just 727 votes out of over 316,000 cast, a margin of roughly 0.24 percent. His challenger, the liberal Thomas Perriello, benefited from a Democratic tide that saw former governor Mark Warner overwhelmingly elected to the U.S. Senate. Obama even narrowly managed to win the commonwealth’s electoral votes, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1964. Perriello lasted only one term, losing to a Goode-endorsed Republican in 2010.

Goode may be the only politician to win election to Congress as a Democrat, independent, and Republican. At least one poll showed him with a chance of retaking his House seat as a Constitution Party candidate, but he declined to run.

His party changed, but Goode’s basic political allegiances—pro-life, pro-gun, and supportive of his constituents’ economic interests—seldom wavered. It is clear from talking to him that he considers immigration a paramount issue. “We need a moratorium on immigration,” he says, going beyond the border-security platitudes preferred by most of his congressional colleagues. “We can’t wait ten or even five years to do it. We need one right now.”

Goode joined the Constitution Party after leaving Congress. “On some issues, I felt [the GOP] wasn’t willing to do what was in the interests of the country.” Certainly few Republicans came to Goode’s aid when he criticized newly elected Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim, for swearing his oath of office on a Koran. Goode blamed mass immigration. “If American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran,” he wrote in a December 2006 letter.

While Goode’s stand was unpopular in Washington, it resonated in his district. “The people around here, they feel like immigration laws are not being enforced and the federal government has ignored the working class of Southside Virginia,” R. Wayne Williams Jr., mayor of Danville, told the Washington Post. “Virgil is standing up for everybody here.” Williams also praised Goode for his votes against free trade agreements.

The Constitution Party has been angling for a candidate of Goode’s stature for over 20 years. Founded as the U.S. Taxpayers’ Party in 1991 by former Nixon staffer Howard Phillips, it was intended as a vehicle for a prospective third-party presidential bid by Pat Buchanan. But Buchanan stayed in the Republican Party after his 1992 and 1996 campaigns. When he was finally ready to bolt in 1999, he decided to seek—and, at great cost, win—the Reform Party nomination instead. The Reformers were founded by Ross Perot, whose ’96 showing qualified the party for better state ballot access and $12.6 million in federal matching funds.

Howard Phillips ended up running for president himself in all three elections as the U.S. Taxpayers’/Constitution Party nominee. Phillips, a longtime veteran of the conservative movement, was an able defender of the party’s platform: strict fidelity to the Constitution, a prominent place for Christianity in the public square, adamant opposition to abortion, and a less interventionist foreign policy. But for many conservatives his disillusionment with the GOP seemed premature—he had technically left the party while Richard Nixon was still president—and serious media coverage of his campaigns was practically nonexistent.

Phillips and other Constitution Party leaders unsuccessfully wooed other, more prominent Republican defectors to be their presidential nominee: Bob Smith, a combative conservative senator from New Hampshire, “Ten Commandments Judge” Roy Moore, the author Jerome Corsi. Before Virgil Goode, Alan Keyes was the first relatively big name to bite. Keyes sought the party’s nomination in 2008, but was defeated by pastor Chuck Baldwin when delegates—including Phillips—were turned off his by his conventional Republican foreign policy.

On those issues, Goode’s record is also a less than perfect fit with the mostly noninterventionist third party. He voted for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. Unlike North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones, in Congress he never budged from these positions. He subsequently voted to make the Patriot Act permanent. When Goode voted against a congressional resolution opposing the surge in Iraq, he said he didn’t want to “aid and assist the Islamic jihadists who want the green flag of the crescent and star to wave over the Capitol of the United States and over the White House of this country.” Goode warned of “In Muhammad we trust” appearing on U.S. currency.

In our interview in March, Goode was somewhat equivocal about foreign policy. He emphasized Congress’s constitutional power to declare war and opposed following the dictates of the United Nations. “We can stay in Afghanistan and the Middle East forever, and it won’t make a difference,” he argued. Goode said he was in favor of reducing the number of troops and bases overseas but against cutting veterans’ benefits.

The former congressman was harder to pin down on his past record, however. “I still believe to some degree that Iraq had WMD,” he confessed. Goode said we should “send Iran a clear message that if we are assaulted, we will meet it and trump it.” That’s not the same as calling for war with Iran—under Goode’s scenario, Tehran would be the aggressor—but the tone is a bit off for someone who is leading a party that truly advocates a humble foreign policy.

Goode’s record clearly concerned many purists in the Constitution Party, of which there are many. He won the nomination on the first ballot, but by just one vote—the smallest winning margin for a CP nominee. But Goode avoided Alan Keyes’s fate for several reasons. First, Goode began working within the party in 2010. Keyes had no involvement with the Constitution Party prior to seeking its nomination.

Second, Goode tried to win over Constitution Party leaders. The famously abrasive Keyes sought to convince them that his foreign-policy views were correct. Keyes’s supporters even made an unsuccessful attempt to revise the platform to better reflect their candidate’s positions. This year Howard Phillips placed Goode’s name into nomination; he had delivered a fiery speech denouncing Keyes at the 2008 convention. The opposition to Goode was never unified and became further fragmented when bankruptcy attorney Darrell Castle, the party’s vice presidential nominee four years ago, entered the race late.

Finally, it was clear that Goode’s positions were evolving in the Constitution Party’s direction. In his acceptance speech in Nashville, he said that his membership in the party has helped him better evaluate legislation from a constitutional perspective. He conceded he was wrong to vote for the Patriot Act and called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Goode had already been a member of Ron Paul’s Liberty Caucus and he donated to Paul’s presidential campaign in 2008.

The Constitution Party itself is at a crossroads. State affiliates have been fighting the national party and each other over abortion—some state parties have nominated candidates who are pro-life with exceptions for rape and incest, a position unacceptable to hardliners. The party’s presidential candidates have yet to break 200,000 votes nationally. Chuck Baldwin did better than any previous nominee, despite being left off the ballot in a number of populous states, but his campaign largely failed to capitalize on either the Ron Paul moment or broader conservative discontent with John McCain.

Paul’s supporters are increasingly having success within the Republican Party. The exacting constitutionalism of someone like Michigan Rep. Justin Amash may be the norm in the Constitution Party and a curiosity in the GOP. But as a Republican, Amash can get elected to Congress. The Constitution Party hasn’t been relevant to this process of remaking the mainstream right, other than by giving Ron Paul Republicans someone to cast a protest vote for in November.

Just as the Constitution Party couldn’t land Buchanan as a candidate, it also failed to win his voters. Most Buchananites were social conservatives rather than full-spectrum paleoconservatives. They could be won over by Bob Dole and George W. Bush’s pro-life appeals. To the extent that they cared about Buchanan’s stand on foreign policy, Republicans were able to placate them with opposition to nation-building before 9/11 and talk of keeping the country safe from another attack afterward.

The Constitution Party did qualify for major-party status in Colorado after nominating former congressman Tom Tancredo for governor in 2010. Tancredo is a bigger name than Goode, but they have similar records. He managed to finish second in the gubernatorial race with 36.7 percent of the vote, ahead of the Republican candidate. Constitutionalists no doubt hope that what Tancredo did in Colorado, the mild-mannered Goode can do nationally.

“The Founding Fathers had just four Cabinet departments and the postmaster general,” Goode says. If a federal government that small was good enough for them, why not us? “Goode is better!” his supporters chanted as he accepted the Constitution Party nomination. That’s the message he’ll have to send conservatives who are contemplating holding their nose for Mitt Romney in the fall—that the right can do better than that.

“If not now, when?” Ronald Reagan memorably asked. For a Constitution Party seeking an electoral breakthrough and a conservative base fed up with the GOP establishment, it’s a pertinent question.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator and a contributing editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.