WASHINGTON - To call them long shots would be generous.
In most cases they have no experience. No constituency. No money. And name recognition that barely extends beyond their fishing buddies.
But, odds and pollsters be damned, more than 100 Americans - everyone from Tom Laughlin, creator of the '70s film character "Billy Jack," to an Owings Mills, Md., man who calls himself "Messiah" (he's a Democrat, by the way) and campaigns via his car CB radio - are seeking the presidency.
"I realize I'm a lesser-known candidate, but if I'm able to get into the ring, I'll knock out the rest of 'em!" says "Curly" Thornton, a recovering alcoholic from Billings, Mont., who plans to unite an "alcoholic coalition" and says he believes the "torch has been passed" from President John Kennedy to him. "Camelot is going to be revisited," he says.
As of last week, 134 men and women had declared their candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, including perennials such as Lyndon LaRouche and New Alliance Party candidate Lenora Fulani, and dozens of unknowns.
And that is only for starters. In the past, applications have trickled in to the FEC right up to Election Day. During the last election cycle, 331 candidates officially declared their desire to take up residency on Pennsylvania Avenue.
This time around - in what Laughlin calls "the year of the non-politician" - there is Caroline Killeen, an environmentalist from Scranton, Pa., who travels the campaign circuit on her bicycle and says, "America needs trees, not Bush." There is Billy Joe Clegg, a retired disabled veteran from Biloxi, Miss., who has spent the last two summers campaigning in New Hampshire with the slogan, "Vote for Clegg, He Won't Pull Your Leg."
There is Jack Fellure, a retired engineer from Hurricane, W. Va., who sent FEC officials a leather-bound Bible with his 17-page platform so they could check his biblical references. And Ophelia Candyce Ryals of Santa Rosa, Calif., who lists as her campaign committee: "The Father, Son and Holy Spirit - you can't beat that three - and two (or) three angels."
Says an FEC clerk who claims she has seen it all (most recently a beekeeper from Oregon who came in to declare his intentions): "Some run because UFOs told them to."
And, indeed, some of these hopefuls have more foreign travel in their background than even the globe-trotting Bush.
"I had an out-of-body experience into the astral plane," says Kip Lee, a 37-year-old former security guard from Redding, Calif., who wants to be president because of the spiritual insights gained on such excursions. He has made a promise that, if elected, he would "release four alien outer space beings that are being held prisoner at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base" near Dayton, Ohio. But do not question their sincerity, sanity or place in this race. These candidates - along with less celestially guided hopefuls such as Randy Toler of the U.S.A. Green Party and former Sen. Eugene McCarthy - bristle at the term "fringe."
"He's known as `fringe,' or `lesser-known,' but over 100 million people saw his film, `Billy Jack,' where he was a loner fighting corrupt political bosses," says Larry Kern, a volunteer in Lauglin's campaign. "He's massively better-known than any of the other candidates."
Says Larry Agran, former mayor of Irvine, Calif., and perhaps one of the most credentialed, organized and serious-minded of the lesser-knowns, "I prefer underdog, dark horse, or long shot."
Agran got a taste of just how dark a horse he was when he spoke at the state Democratic convention in New Hampshire earlier this month following the "serious" Democratic candidates.
As he spoke, workers started cleaning the hall and folding chairs. And when he continued to speak after his allotted five minutes, a technician pulled the plug on his microphone and put on "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Says Gene Smith of Lake Tahoe, Calif., "I'm thoroughly convinced I will be able to win New Hampshire."Smith, has been raising funds through a "dollar-a-holler" campaign. Anyone who throws a dollar into his pot can express their views. "It's so innocent, really, it's almost like not fund-raising," says Smith, who has raised several thousand dollars.
Also joining the fray is Mugwump Party candidate Mark Twain, also known as Roger Durrett. Durrett, an actor who's portrayed Twain for 14 years, says the candidacy "has a humorous side, but is not entirely frivolous either. As Mark Twain, I can get out on the stump and speak to issues with his words that, oddly enough, are still timely today."
"Lord knows, I have name recognition," said Durrett. "The other candidates have no name recognition outside the borders of their own states, and they have as much foreign policy experience as Huck and Jim floating down the river on a piece of log raft."