Here's what's great about America: You can pick up the phone, dial up a real-life presidential candidate, and the person who picks up at the other end is none other than the actual presidential candidate.
No receptionist. No secretary. No campaign aide.
The actual candidate. Often after only one ring, as though Mr. or Ms. Presidential Hopeful were sitting by the phone, fingers drumming on a table, waiting for someone to call. Anyone to call.
This happens again and again as I work my way through the list of more than two dozen so-called "others" who, because they could cough up the $1,000 filing fee, are running in tomorrow's presidential primary in New Hampshire.
I pull up their Web sites, scroll down to a telephone number, and the next thing I know, I'm on the horn with a genuine presidential candidate, someone called Vincent Hamm or Millie Howard or Randy Crow or some other name you've never heard no matter how much of a political junkie you consider yourself. (Yes, Wesley Clark picked up his own phone once when a reporter called right after he announced for president in September, but the general quickly caught onto the fact that major candidates do not behave that way.)
Most of "the others" are friendly as can be, terribly earnest, generous with their time and - there's no way not to entertain this thought - nuts, to one degree or another.
Maybe I just don't have their imagination. This business about how anyone can be president of the United States, these people have taken it to heart. Who knew? Still, I get a little antsy when I'm on the phone with Republican presidential contender John Buchanan for 45 minutes, and I haven't had a chance yet to ask him my second question. Finally I decide there's no need for a second question, not after he refers to himself for the umpteenth time as "the Bush-Nazi journalist."
Buchanan, 53, says his claim to fame - he believes he has a claim to fame - is that he's the one who unearthed the connections between George W. Bush's forebears and the Nazi war machine. "I tried to give the documents to The New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Miami Herald and CBS," he tells me, "but no one would touch them, so I finally gave it to The New Hampshire Gazette."
On the basis of that scoop - he calls it "the most explosive piece of journalism I've ever seen in my life" - he says he was urged to run for president, which is why he is talking to me from an Econo-Lodge in Manchester, N.H. He had arrived on Jan. 4 from his home in Miami, and, to hear him describe it, soon started an electoral stampede in his direction.
"I am literally exhausted and still in the surreal stages of this," he says breathlessly 11 days before the primary. "Everyone in the state thinks I'm going to win the [bleepin'] thing and Bush's presidency. I am now convinced that not only am I going to beat Bush but that I am actually going to win the presidency, which I still find hard to say with a straight face."
It's not clear what evidence convinced him he had the primary in the bag, but at least Buchanan is deluding himself in New Hampshire itself.
Democrat Vincent Hamm is not. He is somewhere outside of Denver, from where he is running his entire assault on the White House. Hamm, who runs some sort of consulting business, is no stranger to New Hampshire, except in the sense that he has spent almost no time there. This is his third run for the presidency in the Granite State, each mounted entirely from afar by way of his computer, an accomplishment that is of enormous pride to him. In fact, it becomes clear that Hamm, 44, is a little peeved that Howard Dean is stealing the credit due Hamm for pioneering e-electioneering.
"My campaigns have always been mostly by e-mail and on the Internet," he says, "so I was sort of a front-runner in getting my message out that way."
His first time out in New Hampshire, he got 72 votes. Four years later, he collected only 34. "My message," Hamm says, "is taking hold."
I say I'm not sure I heard him correctly. Didn't his vote total decline by more than 50 percent?
"Yes," he says with evident patience, "but in 1996, the total number of votes cast was 75,000 and in 2000 it was something like 140,000 or 150,000."
I still think I must be missing something. Shouldn't his votes then have doubled rather than halved? How exactly is his message "taking hold"?
Now Hamm adopts the tone of a teacher trying to bring along the dimmest member of the class. "Because," he says, "my message was that people should get out and vote."
Hamm's No. 1 issue is the failed War on Drugs, which is why he favors the decriminalization of marijuana and maybe - he's not sure yet - cocaine and heroin. He admits he's not getting much traction on the issue, but he has no intention of giving up even if New Hampshire doesn't go his way and he's not on the ballot in any other state.
"I'll probably wait until the convention, and if I'm not a front-runner at that point, I'll throw my support to one of the other candidates."