WASHINGTON -- To call them long shots would be generous.
In most cases they have no experience. No constituency. No money. And name recognition that barely extends beyond their fishing buddies.
But, odds and pollsters be damned, more than 100 Americans -- everyone from Tom Laughlin, creator of the '70s film character "Billy Jack," to an Owings Mills man who calls himself "Messiah" (he's a Democrat, by the way) and campaigns via his car CB radio -- are seeking the U.S. presidency.
"I realize I'm a lesser-known candidate, but if I'm able to get into the ring, I'll knock out the rest of 'em!" says "Curly" Thornton, a
recovering alcoholic from Billings, Mont., who
plans to unite an "alcoholic coalition" and believes the "torch has been passed" from John F. Kennedy to him. "Camelot is going to be revisited," he says.
As of last week, 134 men and women had declared their candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, including -- along with George Bush and the six recognized Democratic hopefuls -- perennials such as Lyndon LaRouche and New Alliance Party candidate Lenora Fulani, and dozens of unknowns.
And that's only for starters. In the past, applications have trickled in to the FEC right up to Election Day. During the last election cycle, 331 Americans officially declared their desire to take up residency on Pennsylvania Avenue.
This time around -- in what Mr. Laughlin calls "the year of the non-politician" -- there is Caroline Kil
leen, an environmentalist from Scranton, Pa., who travels the campaign circuit on her bicycle and says, "America needs trees, not Bush."There is Billy Joe Clegg, a retired disabled veteran from Biloxi, Miss., who has spent the last two summers campaigning in New Hampshirewith the slogan, "Vote for Clegg, He Won't Pull Your Leg."
And there is Jack Fellure, a retired engineer from Hurricane, W.Va., who sent FEC officials a leather-bound Bible along with his 17-page platform so they could check the biblical references he cited. And Ophelia Candyce Ryals of Santa Rosa, Calif., who lists as her campaign committee: "The Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- you can't beat that three -- and two-thirds [of the] 'N angels."
Says an FEC clerk who claims she has seen it all (most recently a beekeeper from Oregon who came in to declare his intentions): Some run because UFOs told them to."
And, indeed, some of these hopefuls have more foreign travel in their background than even the globe-trotting George Bush.
"I had an out-of-body experience into the astral plane," says Kip Lee, a 37-year-old former security guard from Redding, Calif., who wants to be president because of the spiritual insights gained on such excursions. Beyond that, he says, he has made a promise that, if elected, he would "release four alien outer space beings that are being held prisoner at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base" near Dayton, Ohio.
But don't question their sincerity, sanity or place in this race. These candidates -- along with less celestially guided hopefuls such as Randy Toler of the U.S.A. Green Party and former Sen. Eugene McCarthy -- bristle at the term "fringe."
"He's known as 'fringe,' or 'lesser-known,' but over 100 million people saw his film, 'Billy Jack,' where he was a loner fighting corrupt political bosses," says Larry Kern, a volunteer in the campaign of Mr. Laughlin, the former actor. "He's massively better-known than any of the other candidates."
Says Larry Agran, former mayor of Irvine, Calif., and perhaps one of the most credentialed, organized and serious-minded of the lesser-knowns, "I prefer underdog, dark horse, or long shot."
Mr. Agran got a taste of just how dark a horse he was when he spoke at the state Democratic convention in New Hampshire earlier this month following the "serious" Democratic candidates.
As he spoke, workers started cleaning the hall and folding up chairs. And when he continued to speak after his allotted five minutes, a technician pulled the plug on his microphone and poured "Happy Days Are Here Again" over the loudspeaker.
"That I regard as an outrage," says the liberal Democrat who has raised $100,000 so far in campaign funds. "I'm very serious about, not only this campaign, but the issues of governing."
"There's a disease afoot in Washington, a gridlock, a paralysis that can only be overcome by ordinary people from the outside," he says.
He and a handful of others have been canvassing New Hampshire, the site in February of the first primary, because every U.S. president since 1952 has won that state's primary.
"I'm thoroughly convinced I will be able to win New Hampshire," says Gene Smith of Lake Tahoe, Calif., a business consultant and psychologist who says his "claim to fame" is that he went to Moscow in 1984 to try to negotiate a settlement to the Olympic boycott.