In New Hampshire, underdogs promote presidential agendas
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CONCORD, N.H. -- Several want to radically remake the economy. One sees energy independence in the untapped potential of thorium reactors. Another merely wants to go back in time to kill the infant Adolf Hitler.
They are the presidential candidates you don't hear so much about, the ones who, despite varying degrees of obscurity, will have equal billing on Tuesday's New Hampshire ballot with the likes of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts.
New Hampshire's tradition of participatory democracy is reflected in its town meetings, a 424-member Legislature -- the largest in the nation -- and, every four years, in a wide-open presidential primary ballot that attracts, in addition to the prominent pols you may be sick of hearing about by now, dozens of more obscure candidates, ranging from the earnest to the zany and all points in between.
This year's ballot includes 44 political hopefuls. Some actually want to be president, but many see the process, with the legion of reporters and cameras it attracts, as an opportunity to draw attention to an idea. And some just want to have fun.
This year's roster of candidates -- 30 Republicans and 14 Democrats -- is the second-largest field ever, according to William M. Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state, who zealously guards the legacy of the first-in-the-nation primary. The record was 61 candidates in 1992.
On Thursday evening, in a hotel ballroom where a crowd of several hundred had watched the Republican former senator of Pennsylvania Rick Santorum a few hours earlier, a dedicated audience of about 30 -- widely scattered amid the mostly empty seats -- listened as four of the more obscure candidates offered their prescriptions for the nation's ills.
"The main reason I'm running is that I had some ideas. I didn't want sit on my couch complaining, so I decided to run myself," said Jeff Lawman, a Republican candidate, whose website notes that one of his ancestors landed on Plymouth Rock. Mr. Lawman gives extended answers to policy questions with a subdued and thoughtful air. He's the director of quality assurance and reliability engineering for a large publicly traded company. He explains, however, that his firm has asked him not to mention their name.
His website, www.jefflawman.com, lists a variety of proposals for the economy, including a call to revamp corporate taxes to reward hiring, one element of a policy package "that combines flat taxes, progressive taxes, personal income and capital gains into one mathematically elegant model."
"If you have any questions, the email is listed there," he said.
"I'll answer myself; there won't be a staffer doing it for me."
Bob Greene, who holds a doctorate in physics and lives in Mountain View, Calif., doesn't expect to hear anyone play "Hail to the Chief," in his honor anytime soon. He's running as one of the 14 candidates on the Democratic side to focus attention on "a thousand-year energy plan" that would free the country from dependence on oil imports through large-scale adoption of reactors fueled by thorium, an element more abundant and, he explains, much safer than the uranium that fuels existing nuclear reactors.
Mr. Greene's campaign is a family affair. His sister Leslie Kittenbrink of Ohio Township is his campaign manager. With a few holiday breaks, she's been up here assisting the effort full-time since Thanksgiving. Another sister is his media strategist. A brother pitches in with debate prep for the relatively few forums open to such bottom-tier candidates.
"It's just been crazy fun," Ms. Kittenbrink said. "We're really proud of him. Even though we wanted to kill him at first ... he's got the knowledge and the message, so why not?"
The New Hampshire ballot abounds with other Pennsylvania connections.
In addition to Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a Green Tree native; former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican Harrisburg native; and the Republican former senator Rick Santorum -- you remember him, he used to live in Pennsylvania -- there's Bear Betzler of Philadelphia and state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, all of whom paid the $1,000 filing fee to enter the GOP primary.
Speaking after a campaign appearance in Exeter, Mr. Greenleaf explained that he is running to advance a variety of economic reforms, chief among them a plan to "collateralize the dollar" by replacing Federal Reserve notes with currency backed by the assets of the federal government.
The Harrisburg veteran said he decided to enter the New Hampshire race because, "We've been watching what's happening with people losing their jobs, their homes. I just thought I had to do something to get ideas out there."
In addition to interviews and appearances, Mr. Greenleaf has a three-minute ad running on several public access channels across the state.
Mr. Lawman of Derry, N.H., said the campaign has been a rewarding experience -- despite the sometimes skeptical attitude of his two teenage daughters. But, he acknowledges, "It can be frustrating.
It's rare that we get media coverage, and when they do, they lump us all in as the same carnival sideshow act."
A clue to why that may be came as he and some of his colleagues were fielding questions from the stage. Into the ballroom strode the majestic presence of Vermin Supreme, a wildly bearded, colorfully clad Democratic candidate who wears an upended boot as a hat, symbolizing "all that is good in America."
The Rockport, Mass., performance artist -- a veteran, though until now unsuccessful, candidate -- is running a four-point platform that includes mandatory tooth-brushing, zombie awareness, time travel research (to create a world untouched by Hitler) and free ponies for all.
"Once we switch to a pony-based economy, life is going to be sweet," he pledges.
First Published January 8, 2012 12:00 am