April 9, 2007 -- Presidential candidates who are not on the front pages of national papers or frequent subjects of network news have been trying to drum up support the old-fashioned way -- asking people to vote for them.
From a smoke-filled stogie shop to private dinners and house parties, Republicans Tommy Thompson and Tom Tancredo -- the former a popular ex-Wisconsin governor and Bush Cabinet member, the latter an anti-immigration congressman from Colorado -- are slugging through the surprising late spring snowstorms, trolling for support.
Both are hoping for a surprise of their own in the early contests of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Breaking the Cycle
Money begets buzz and, for the moment, Thompson and Tancredo need a little bit of both.
Neither has raised much more than $1 million in campaign funds, a paltry amount when put up against the tens of millions raised by other candidates.
And the names Thompson and Tancredo are not exactly as household as Clinton or Giuliani, the branded political equivalent of Kleenex or Coke.
But it's those millions of dollars of campaign cash that would seem to separate candidates into the haves -- those with money that can hire enormous staffs and buy expensive advertising -- and the have nots.
"I am not going to be able to compete with that kind of money. And I don't intend to," Thompson, the former Badger State governor and Health and Human Services secretary under President Bush, told a New Hampshire AM talk show last week, shortly after rivals Romney, Giuliani and McCain reported in excess of $20, $15 and $12 million respectively.
"What I've got is different," Thompson said, arguing that he has been hard at work campaigning in Iowa and has a mature ground operation there. A strong showing, he said, could bounce him into the ranks of viability. "The money follows those people."
Thompson Aims for Surprise, Touts Experience
A surprise win in Iowa propelled no-name Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter into the race for the Democratic nomination in the 1976 presidential primary.
Thompson has also hired consultants in New Hampshire and on his first trip to the first-in-the-nation primary state as a presidential candidate, the former secretary of HHS attended a house party with 15 curious Republicans at the home of New Hampshire's HHS Commissioner John Stephen, who said at the party that he cannot endorse candidates but respects Thompson after working with him as Cabinet secretary.
Leveraging his Cabinet experience into a cornerstone of his campaign, Thompson wants to modernize health care with paperless medical records and force health care providers and insurers to emphasize prevention.
Internationally, Thompson wants the United States to practice more "medical diplomacy," building hospitals and improving medical conditions in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"This presidential election is going to be fought around health care," he said. "Iraq and health care."
On Iraq, Thompson wants first to compel a national referendum in Iraq asking the young democracy's citizens, "Do you want the United States to be here?"
If Iraqis voted no, Thompson said, he would immediately withdraw U.S. troops. Otherwise, he would work to partition Iraq into a federal-style democracy, allowing for more autonomy for ethnic groups in their regions.
Thompson's plan for Iraq seemed to touch a nerve with some of the people who saw him in New Hampshire if for no other reason than it is a plan.
"The No. 1 issue has got to be the Iraq War," said Mike McGrath after watching Thompson at the commissioner's house.
"Gov. Thompson is the one I have heard who actually has a plan of what he wants to do about it. If you build the economy, people aren't going to be into secular fighting. That is much different from other candidates."
Thompson is also focusing his campaign on his executive experience as a four-term governor of Wisconsin, successfully lowering taxes there and, he said, sparking welfare reform nationwide with programs first enacted under his leadership.
But the former governor also made more specific appeals. Reaching out to guns rights activists, Thompson repeatedly referred to the 12 weapons he keeps at home -- "nine rifles and three handguns."
On the day he announced, Thompson campaigned from early in the morning in Wisconsin until late at night in New Hampshire.
At a small dinner in an upstairs banquet room of a downtown Manchester Italian Restaurant, he made his pitch to 25 conservative New Hampshire political leaders -- pro-life activists, anti-tax crusaders, and Manchester's Republican mayor.
Thompson tries to distinguish himself by saying he is "the reliable conservative" in the race.
"I have ideas," he said, pointing to his plan for a partition in Iraq. "That is what sets me apart from the other candidates."
Tancredo Clears the Air
Rep. Tom Tancredo, meanwhile, made light of his relatively empty campaign pockets by quoting late night comedian Conan O'Brien to a smoky room half full of cigar aficionados at Castro's Back Room, a Nashua cigar shop.
"Mitt Romney announced he's raised $23 million, Rudy Giuliani said he's raised $15 million, and congressman Tom Tancredo announced he's raised two children," Tancredo said, laughing.
In reality, his campaign was ebullient last week when aides announced in a press statement that Tancredo had surpassed $1 million in fundraising, mostly from grassroots donors.
Tancredo may be having visions of Pat Buchanan, the staunch conservative who shocked the eventual nominee and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in 1996 by winning the New Hampshire primary.
That year, Buchanan was known to appear at campaign events with a pitchfork, threatening less conservative candidates by howling, "The peasants are coming."
Tancredo's staff includes some former Buchanan staffers, and his campaign chairman is Bay Buchanan, the former candidate's sister.
Seemingly at home in the state with the motto "Live free or Die" emblazoned on its license plates, Tancredo preceded his cigar shop stop with some campaigning at Pete's Gun and Tackle.
Pete's greets customers with "Proud to be American" on the exterior sign. Inside the store has orange and green carpet and is crammed with more guns, it seemed, than tackle, its walls lined with various taxidermy, from caribou head to alligators.
Tancredo made his speech to 15 or so men, mostly middle-aged, leaning against a glass display case of handguns.
The Colorado congressman talked about his own concealed weapons permit in his home state to approving nods in the room and decried the law in Washington, D.C., which allows him to carry a weapon on Capitol Hill, but not in the city itself.
Tancredo has called for withdrawal from Iraq -- "We need to start to disengage" -- but does not support Democrat-endorsed timetables. But both on the campaign trail and in Congress, Tancredo has fashioned himself primarily as an anti-illegal immigration crusader.
On his most recent trip to New Hampshire, however, Tancredo tried mainly to tap into the state's libertarian spirit.
It is not every candidate for president who, in these health-conscious days of smoking bans, will happily light up a cigar in front of reporters and clicking cameras.
It is extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- to find pictures of Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat and media darling, smoking cigarettes. (While Obama has admitted to being a smoker, he also is trying to quit).
But there was Tancredo, propped up in an old barber's chair in a smoke-filled room, puffing away on his H. Upmann (Dominican, not Cuban) at Castro's Back Room in Nashua.
"He is a human being comfortable with himself. He doesn't need to recreate himself as a cookie cutter candidate," said Shelly Uscinski, Tancredo's New Hampshire state director. "He is going to tell voters what he believes in, not what he thinks they want to hear."
Tancredo must see the cigar issue and the personal freedoms it represents as a winner among his constituency in New Hampshire; at each campaign appearance, he brought up the fact that he got some newspaper headlines over his smoking earlier this year when a staffer for Rep. Keith Ellison, the new Minnesota Democrat, first Muslim member of Congress and occupant of the office adjacent to Tancredo's, called Capitol police to complain about the smoke.
The complaint went nowhere. Despite a ban by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on smoking just off the House floor, congressmen rule their respective offices and can authorize smoking there if they choose.
Personal freedoms only go so far, however, and Tancredo will be the first to admit it -- even if he does not want the government poking its head into his business, there is, apparently a higher law.
"I don't get to smoke these at home," Tancredo told one man sitting in the barber chair next to him, pointing at his stogie. "My wife won't let me."