Here is the kind of great big presidential campaign being run by A. Robert Kaufman: He's raised a total of $400, more or less, from supporters all across the state of Maryland, and he refuses to kiss any babies under the age of 18.
OK, that's the joke Kaufman tells on himself. But here's the joke on the rest of us: Kaufman's not on the March 3 presidential ballot here, for reasons having nothing at all to do with America as we like to think of it.
We used to say that, in America, anyone can grow up to be president. The problem is, in Maryland, not everyone is allowed to run for president.
David Duke could have run.
But Bob Kaufman can't.
On Friday, Kaufman, 60, was sitting home and removing stamps from envelopes he'd intended to send to prospective voters, and declaring, ''Nothing's happened.''
He was talking about his court case. Months ago, when Kaufman heard that Duke, the Louisiana Klansman, was running for president and might compete in the Maryland primary, Kaufman decided to be the voice from the other side, the sound of reason instead of hatred.
He tried to file for a spot in the Maryland presidential primary, and quickly found out he could not.
Who said so? Winfield Kelly, Maryland secretary of state.
Kelly's reasoning? Kaufman wasn't well enough known to run for president -- this, despite Kaufman's 30 years of well-publicized social action around here, plus a series of high and low public offices for which he's run.
Then, to add insult to idiocy, Kelly denied another candidate a place on the ballot for the same lack-of-publicity reason: former Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
Did Kelly never hear of New Hampshire in '68? Did he never hear of Lyndon Johnson running for cover?
Anyway, McCarthy and Kaufman were both denied a spot on the ballot, and so the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on their behalf.
The case went to Anne Arundel Circuit Court three weeks ago, and here we are nine days before the Maryland primary vote, and everybody's still waiting for a decision.
''It's great, isn't it?'' Kaufman says.
''Here we have Duke, the man with the reconstructed face and the unreconstructed politics. He would have been allowed on the ballot, but not Kaufman or McCarthy. This secretary of state of ours has no problem putting a Nazi on the ballot, but a great problem putting political progressives on.''
Duke has since begged off the Maryland primary, but that isn't the point. Politically, Kaufman didn't expect to win. He runs for whatever office grabs his passion, and never expects to get many votes. But winning's never the issue.
Democracy is. He likes the sound of ideas colliding, of lots of voices arguing in public and kicking things around until a fine little nub of truth emerges.
''If you look at it like a horse race, my candidacy is entirely irrelevant,'' he admits. ''If, on the other hand, you naively assume we live in a democracy where an election is not a fetish that any tinhorn dictator can have, but includes a full discussion and debate of our issues, then it's real important.''
Over the next nine days, the Democrats will have all five of their candidates in Maryland. Both Republican contenders will be here, too. But, for all their numbers, a fundamental issue is being danced around but never quite addressed: economic fairness. The distance between haves and have-nots in America continues to grow.
The president talks of tax breaks for the haves and assures us, as we've now been assured for 11 years, that one day the money will trickle down if we'll just be patient.
Everybody's still waiting. Five years ago, the Joint Economic Commission of the House and Senate said that one-half of 1 percent of the richest American families has 35 percent of the total wealth of the country, while the bottom 90 percent of the country has just 28 percent of the wealth.
''They've understated the numbers,'' Kaufman declares, ''and in the last five years, the figures have gotten worse.''
All of the candidates talk economics these days, but nobody talks of those particular economics.
The candidates therefore lie to us. They say the economy's bad, but they neglect telling us that it's only bad for some people. The very rich keep getting very richer, while everybody else feels the cold hand of fear.
''You know who addresses some of this? David Duke,'' says Kaufman. ''He implicitly recognizes that the country's in bad shape, and he calls for radical surgery. Everybody knows it's true, but the major candidates say, no, a few things are wrong but we can correct it in a few years if you elect me. ''Duke's a racist, but he's right about that part of it. His problem is that he adds to the hatred in this country. Whites blame blacks, blacks blame Koreans, everybody's angry with gays, with Communists, with Arabs, with Jews, with Japanese. It's the good old days of World War II.''
In a couple of months of campaigning, Kaufman's been invited to give a total of four speeches. A Howard County cable station taped a TV interview, but it won't run until two weeks after the election.
A week from today, the Democratic candidates will meet in College Park. As someone whose campaign is still emotionally -- if not technically -- alive, Kaufman would have loved a spot in the debate.
''But,'' he says, ''they turned me down. How do you like that? And here I am, the favorite son!''
He's laughing when he says it, but there's plenty of anger behind the good nature.