"I have nothing but respect for the president," Blake Ashby declares in his standard opening line. He follows it up by announcing, with all due respect, that he's running for George W. Bush's job.
The respect is important because Ashby, a 39-year-old Missouri entrepreneur, has been a committed navy-suit-and-red-tie Republican since he first studied GOP values during a civics class his sophomore year in high school. He wouldn't want voters to think he's down on the president.
He just happens to believe he could do a better job.
And he's willing to put his money on the line to try to prove it.
Ashby is one of 13 Republicans challenging Bush in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary Jan. 27. The other candidates include Bill Wyatt, who owns a T-shirt store in Los Angeles; John Donald Rigazio, who recently switched parties in a rage after the Democrats kept him off their ballot; and Millie Howard, who avoids the nuisance of updating her Web site for each of her campaigns by titling the introduction "Millie Howard for President USA 1992 and Beyond."
The field, in short, sounds an awful lot like the crowd that mesmerized, or mortified, Californians in last month's gubernatorial recall election.
Why are they running?
"Some of it is just to be able to say you ran for president. Some of it is vanity. Some is mental instability," said Andy Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Some too is admirable dedication to a lonely cause.
Pushing Their Causes
Howard wants to abolish the IRS. Rigazio aims to pull America out of the World Trade Organization. Wyatt has built his campaign around the all-capital-letters rallying cry: "NO NEW WARS!" Each cared enough to pay a $1,000 filing fee in hope of using their candidacies to call attention to their agendas.
Few of the candidates -- Wyatt is a notable exception -- express anger at Bush or his policies. Don't expect a lot of mudslinging from these guys; the race as they see it is all about them, not the man they hope to replace.
"There are a lot of reporters running around the state, so maybe [these candidates] get more attention here than they would anywhere else," said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
The urge to run seems timeless and somehow above the political fray, Fowler noted. No matter who is in the White House or who leads the opposition, at least a dozen fringe candidates from each party clog the New Hampshire ballot every four years. None gets more than a hundred or so votes, "and that would be a generous estimate," Fowler said.
Bush, who expects to build a reelection war chest of $200 million, has not acknowledged his 13 challengers. His campaign declined to comment.
And local GOP officials for the most part act as though the president is running unopposed; some states have even canceled their Republican primary to save money.
"It's like being invisible," Wyatt complained. "There are not going to be any forums in which George Bush even recognizes that anyone else is running."
The Antiwar Republican
Despite that embittering fact, Wyatt -- a 43-year-old father of three -- plans to spend about $20,000 on his antiwar candidacy. Asked what his wife thought of his plan, he laughed: "Let's just say I like her honesty. She thinks it's stupid." He has given away hundreds of free T-shirts and miniature Wyatt-for-President lawn signs. He has flown across the country to camp out in front of mainstream campaign events, introducing himself to anyone who will listen.
"I never served in the military, but I have run for office a lot and have stood up for a lot of causes. And to me, that's serving the country too," he said. Plus, he added, his civic activism is teaching his kids "not to be afraid to participate."
Acknowledging that he's "not 100% up on most issues," Wyatt has invited voters to write his Web site at www.billwyatt.org with suggestions on how to run the country. "Maybe 10 have written in so far," he said. "It's not hugely popular now, but I hope the momentum will build."
From his home base in St. Louis, Ashby also is counting on momentum as he tries to distinguish himself from his opponents -- a couple of whom, he suggests, are only "looking for dates."
The Budget Cutter
His campaign is more organized than most; he has two press secretaries and a team of Web gurus helping him get his message out online, at www.ashby2004.com.
He won't say how much money he's willing to commit, but he plans to spend three weeks shaking hands with voters in New Hampshire and aims to get his name on the ballot in more than a dozen other states. He even hints that his budget might allow some TV ads.
Ashby says he's running because the spiking deficits and "bloated budgets" of the Bush administration outrage him. He says he can't believe a Republican president would support huge new entitlements like expanded farm subsidies and a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, even as the national debt soars.
Ashby hopes to gain enough force as a protest candidate to start steering the GOP back toward what he calls its founding principles of "limited government and fiscal restraint."
"I want people to think, 'What would happen if a bunch of us did vote for this guy? We could send a message to the Republican Party. We could express frustration with current policies,' " Ashby said.
"But if I should lose in the primaries," he added, ever respectful, "I will certainly vote for the president."