The Lonely Trail
Second tier candidates running for president have it different than those at the top of the heap that bask in the glow of mega-media attention and large, enthusiastic crowds.
Front runners typically don't have time to spend an hour in a small New Hampshire town serving breakfast to the Rotary Club. But that's what Congressman Duncan Hunter did on the 4th of July. The hungry Rotarians barely took note of the dark, serious looking man who was serving them that morning. But every once and a while Hunter would stop doling out scrambled eggs long enough to say howdy and plead for support.
The people nodding their heads and shaking his hand in response to his greeting were nice enough. But if I were Hunter, I would be wondering what Mitt Romney was doing that morning. Or Rudy Giuliani. Life for the second tier candidate can be frustrating at times.
From the Rotary Club it was off to Amherst to march in a 4th of July parade. Middle school volunteers carried a banner in front of him so the crowd knew who the smiling pol running back and forth working both sides of the street was. "Hi, I'm Duncan Hunter, and I'm running for President. I need your help," is a line all candidates must have running through their dreams for the rest of their lives.
And it's a good thing those kids were carrying that banner, because otherwise it's doubtful anyone would have known him. Hunter barely registers in name recognition in New Hampshire, and garners less than one percent of the vote in the Granite State according to the most recent polls (pdf).
It must be a humbling experience for a man of Hunter's gifts and accomplishments. A 14 term Congressman who swept to victory on Ronald Reagan's coattails in 1980, Duncan Hunter was a Ranger in Viet Nam who came back home to practice law in a storefront office in San Diego, many times taking indigent cases from his mostly Hispanic client√®le. His distinguished career in the House has seen him on the cutting edge of military issues, and on the forefront of the immigration debate for more than a decade. He wangled enough money from the federal government to construct 14 miles of fencing on the Mexican border with another 44 miles being monitored with high tech cameras and other "virtual fencing."
Recently, he jawboned the Department of Homeland Security for taking their time implementing the border security measures passed last year by the Republicans, that included an additional 700 miles of fence. Saying the Administration has "a case of the slows" when it comes to implementing border security measures, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff shot back that technology such as radar can be more effective than fencing, and DHS is deciding on what mix of fencing and technology to build. Chertoff further angered Hunter when he damned the border fence idea with faint praise, calling it "symbolic" in its usefulness.
But Hunter's bread and butter throughout his career have been military issues. He was made Chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 2002, after serving on it for two decades. Hunter speaks very personally when he talks about what is at stake in Iraq, having a son who has served two tours there and is now in Afghanistan. He backs President Bush's policy on the surge and does not favor any wavering on the part of the United States.
His position on Iraq as well as his staunch opposition to abortion has earned him the sympathy of conservatives, but little else. Hunter is not a reflexive man of the right. His position on trade has raised some eyebrows. He opposes NAFTA and is a demon on demanding fair trade with China, putting him at odds with most of the GOP caucus and much of the business community. But Hunter sees the issue as vital to the future of our manufacturing base. He has promised to carry through on his ideas to force the Chinese to compete fairly with American companies if elected.
Smart, dynamic, a forceful presence on stage—as he proved during the debates held so far—Hunter is living proof that being well qualified for the office of President doesn't matter as much as perceptions of your chances to win. Hunter has been forced to carry on something of a shadow candidacy since national media has given him little more than a pass and a shrug.
He has raised just over a million dollars - about as much as he rose for his last House race. His staff is mostly volunteers. And it shows. The only reporter on his most recent swing through New Hampshire was not told of a change in plans for the next day's itinerary. Candidate and media representative ended up 45 miles apart.
Hoping to catch lightening in a bottle, Hunter soldiers on. Campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa has always been a retail proposition. The good people of those states tend not to make up their minds about a candidate until they've looked him in the eye and shaken his hand. A CNN New Hampshire poll (pdf) that showed negligible support for Hunter also showed that 71% of New Hampshire voters had yet to decide who they would support.
The one good thing about being at the bottom of the heap is that you can only move up. Hunter still has time to make an impression, and perhaps pull off a surprise by finishing in the top 3 in New Hampshire with 5 months still to go before the first votes are cast. Such a finish would give him a fighting chance going into South Carolina the following week.
But it's a long shot candidacy, and Duncan Hunter is a realist. When asked why he would give up his safe House seat and try for the Presidency, Hunter said it was (LAT reg. req.) "his time:"
"All the issues that I care about, that I've worked on my entire career, have come to the fore," Hunter said, citing immigration, national security and an economy that "is fracturing with a massive exodus of manufacturing jobs" to other countries.
His time. Perhaps it should be the time for a man with Hunter's kind of loyalty. His very good friend Duke Cunningham tested that loyalty by betraying the trust of his office for several million dollars in cash and gifts, getting convicted of massive bribery. A lesser man—especially one running for president—would have likely walked away from a friend in that position. Bill Clinton certainly did.
But sitting right behind Duke Cunningham when he was sentenced to serve 8 years in a federal prison was the man who helped him when he first decided to get into politics, Duncan Hunter. His explanation why was simple and direct:
"He was my friend; he is my friend," Hunter added. "I think that as Christians, if we can forgive our enemies, we can certainly forgive our friends. So I didn't run away from Cunningham."
Nor has he run away from controversy. A San Diego Union Tribune story pointed out that his 6,200-square-foot house had been assessed taxes based on a home of considerably smaller size. Hunter claims the error was the assessor's, and in fact, after the Cedar fire of 2002—that destroyed his home and a small guest house that was also on the property—many residents of the area discovered that their homes had been assessed for taxes improperly. Hunter is in negotiations with the county on the back taxes, and the home is slowly being rebuilt.
Hunter also received political contributions from two of the defendants in the Cunningham scandal. But after the role Brent Wilkes and Mitchell Wade was revealed in 2005, Hunter gave the exact same amount donated to his campaign by the Cunningham defendants to the injured-Marine Semper Fi Fund. There has never been any evidence that Hunter acted improperly or illegally in his dealings with the two men.
Duncan Hunter will probably never be president. But perhaps we should examine people like Hunter—and Bill Richardson on the Democratic side—a little closer. The question of why the gatekeepers in the national press should be deciding who a "viable" candidate for president is and isn't (especially in an age of on-line advocacy and visibility) is a legitimate one.
After all, their track record over the last decade or so leaves much to be desired.
Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.