By Marin Cogan, GQ
ORLANDO, Fla.--Buddy Roemer is also running for president. He is sitting in the breezy open-air patio at the Doubletree Hilton in Orlando, shaded from the late afternoon sun, recounting the time he received a letter from Richard Nixon congratulating him on a speech, when he spies the man he's been looking for, pops out of his chair and bounds over to him. "I need a Libertarian! I need somebody who's read the Constitution!" Roemer booms in his gravelly, grandfatherly Louisiana accent. "Hi Gary, good to see you! How's it going?"
"Good, good," says Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico and also a candidate for president, removing his polarized sunglasses but leaving his Bluetooth intact.
It's the day before the Florida primary, and while the Republican frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are zigzagging around the state trying to rally support and rustle last minute votes, Roemer and Johnson are here to speak to a slightly smaller audience: the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union, in town for their annual conference. Many in the GOP mainstream deride these first-amendment boosters as a bunch of godless liberals; Roemer and Johnson, though, are just happy to have the audience.
"You the man!" says Roemer, a former Congressman and governor from Louisiana.
"Well, I think about you all the time. I have good thoughts. Give them hell."
The tall, angular former New Mexico governor poses for a photo with the diminutive, silver-haired Louisiana one. "Don't you miss New Hampshire?" Roemer asks.
"No, not really," Johnson says wryly.
Both men spent significant time campaigning there -- Roemer rented an apartment and lived there for months, and Johnson made it the focus of his campaign for the Republican nomination. Roemer finished with 945 votes; Johnson, frustrated with the lack of traction, withdrew from the GOP primary at the end of last year and announced he'd seek the Libertarian nod instead.
Roemer and Johnson are considered boutique candidates, dismissed by the Republican party -- Johnson's best known as the legalization candidate, and Roemer's running on a critique of the corrupting influence of money in politics. And yet when you consider the level of crazytalk that has so far pervaded the Republican nominating contest, it becomes apparent that the only thing keeping them from recognition is the money.
Roemer, staying true to his campaign message, is only accepting individual donations of a maximum $100. His last FEC filings were for just $231,532; his campaign said he raised about $50,000 this month. He wasn't able to get on the Florida ballot, and this is the first time he's been to the state this year. He flew here alone, met his volunteer coordinator (who happens to live in Jacksonville), and had a cup of minestrone soup and a half a BLT at the IHOP on the way over.
"You still in?" Johnson asks Roemer.
"I'm still in, still trying. I've always been hard-headed," Roemer replies, chuckling.
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When he's done here, Buddy's flying back up to New York for a taping of Morning Joe. "We've been on four or five times and we raise large sums of money every time, $25, $50 a gift," Roemer says. The best shows for fundraising, though, are The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, where the candidate has appeared to critique the campaign finance system. We are walking under prefab thatched huts, on a little footpath under rustling palms in the hotel courtyard, to a small, musty hotel room the ACLU has given him to rest before the speech. He promises his ACLU host we'll only be thirty minutes, but the interview takes more than an hour. In his first answer he touches on almost all of my questions, hop-scotching from issue to issue with the enthusiasm of a breathless child.
He declares pretty much everything -- his support base, the Occupy movement, a speech he gave in front of the Chinese Embassy -- to be awesome. ("It's awesome!" or "It was awesome!" or "Just awesome!") He is sitting on the edge of his seat, blue eyes flashing, his greying eyebrows arched high above his wire-framed glasses, so emphatic that every quote ends in exclamation. His breadth is both exhaustive and exhausting, and we continue on like this, unspooling bits of information as we go.
On Romney: "The one percent!" And Gingrich: "The lobbyist for the one percent!"
On his first legislative priorities as president: "HB 1 campaign reform, HB 2 fair trade, HB 3 energy independence, HB 4 tax reform!"
On his cabinet: "It'd be white and black, man and woman. It'd look like America -- it's young and old, people who know how to tweet, people who don't know how to spell it!"
On the Occupy Wall Street movement: "I love young people, I learn so much, I went to Occupy Wall Street, Occupy DC, Occupy New Hampshire, Occupy Boston -- just to listen! I didn't call them up and say here I come, I just went to listen, and they gathered around. It was awesome!"
We run through a brief biography: born in Shreveport, went to Harvard at age 16, graduated from the business school, ran for Congress without taking PAC money, and won. Then ran for Governor without taking PAC money, and won. Switched mid-term from Democrat to Republican -- and lost reelection. Made another go of it in 1995, and lost again. Decided to come out of retirement to protest the massive influence of moneyed interests in Washington.
He snatches the complimentary copy of USA Today and starts drawing a Venn Diagram -- Republicans in the right circle and Democrats on the left, a little space overlapping between them. "These are the Dems -- I used to be a Dem -- these are the Repubs. This is 30 years ago. See this space in here where they overlap? That's where you pass bills! That's where you got it done. That's where Reagan led."
He draws two circles, far apart. "That's where we are now. The Dems are pulled to the left -- no, wait, I got 'em on the wrong side." He scribbles out and redraws. "Dems pulled to the left by this wing, Repubs are pulled to the right. NO ACTION! GRIDLOCK!" he bellows, though I'm only a few feet away, on the hotel room sofa. "That's all that's changed. Here's where I am." He draws himself in the middle. "I'll have Democrats and Republicans. I'll have a Democratic running mate. It will be a unity ticket."
He says he used to measure success by his ability to get on the stage and debate his ideas with the other candidates. But he can't get on stage, so he's taken to Twitter, where he interacts with journalists and snarks on the other candidates.
"Yay! Newt doesn't want to bicker. Oh, wait... five seconds passed. He now wants to bicker. *sigh*" he tweeted during the CNN debate on Thursday. "When Santorum sounds reasonable, you know you're watching the debate from hell," he wrote.
"I have two ladies -- volunteers -- who travel with me on debate night, and we go to it," he says, of his Twitter prowess. "They are fast, I am glib, you put those two together, and we have some hell of a tweets, man! We get retweeted more than anybody else running. I don't know why -- maybe because they're busy debating."
I ask him if it's frustrating, being left out of debates. "It depends on how many beers I've had -- I'm joking, don't you dare put that down!" he says. Sure, it frustrates him, but he doesn't seem too upset about it. About his Twitter following, he concludes, "it's awesome!"
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There are only 46 people in this canary-walled conference room. But like a rock band that arrives for a show to find a concert hall empty, Roemer plugs in and gives his all anyway. From behind a small podium, his red tie a touch askance, he laments the decline of manufacturing in America, rails against free trade, decries the influence of corporate lobbyists on the tax code, complains that the president took donations from major corporations.
"Two hundred thirty six years after the American revolution we find ourselves in a similar dilemma with the colonists, living in an empire divided into two classes: the elite and everyone else. The majority of America has become colonial plantation labor. Taxed by those who don't pay themselves, put at risk by those who are guaranteed survival. Governed by those immune to the consequences of their actions." Some of the group of ACLU staffers are giggling. But even more are nodding along. "It's the political elite, with their K Street and Wall Street connections. It's the tyranny of the big check, and I've never seen an election like the one we're having now."
He wins a strong round of applause as he finishes, and then confesses sheepishly, "I wrote that in a coffee shop on the way in," and gets more laughs and more applause. "Remember that question we got in the third grade -- what sound does a tree make if it falls in the forest and no one hears it? Well that's me! No one hears me!"
One woman near the front of the group gets up and says, "I'm thrilled by your appearance here, and I'm totally charmed, I have to admit." But then the tough questions start coming: How do you keep lobbyists from circumventing the rules? Have you changed your stance on the death penalty? What about abortion?
"It doesn't make everyone happy. Maybe it makes nobody happy," he says, explaining that he's pro-life but overturned two abortion bans as a governor. "But that's what I believe."
That's Roemer's other problem, aside from the lack of exposure: free from the confines of money, he's crafted a platform that's largely appealing to most people but contains enough apostasies to make him unpalatable to base voters from either party. "I don't know enough about his positions," said Scott Reiners, standing in the back of the room after the speech. "But I can't vote for an anti-choice candidate."
As he made his way out of the conference room, I asked Buddy if he thought he'd convinced them. "No!" he guffawed "But we got started. We'll meet again."
Follow Marin on Twitter for more updates from the Florida campaign trail.
photo: Marin Cogan
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