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CAMPAIGN 2000 | COLUMN ONE

What Makes Harry--and Others--Run

In a system that stacks the odds against them, third- party hopefuls struggle to build a political presence.

September 29, 2000|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA CROSSE, Wis. — It's not a good night on the stump for Harry Browne, Libertarian for president.

A late summer lightning storm crackles outside. But inside this dairy-land town's biggest hotel, the air lacks electricity. The 100 folks assembled to hear Browne seem sleepy, bludgeoned by a blue-collar workday.

They yawn at punch lines, clap sporadically, shrink when asked to feed the campaign kitty. A big group hogging the front rows slinks out before Browne even opens for questions. Turns out they're college kids fulfilling a class assignment.

"Tough crowd," a Browne aide laments afterward, as busboys cart off picked-over platters of fruit and Wisconsin cheese. "Bunch of looky-loos."

"Weirdest event we've had," Browne agrees. "They didn't get the jokes. And our fund-raising was the lowest yet. A thousand dollars."

Greetings from the political ramparts, the unglamorous edge of the presidential campaign trail. Out here on the road with Browne and his like--the longshots, the third-party hopefuls--respect often is earned one voter at a time.

In election 2000, the Democrats and Republicans, as always, have the money and media attention. Candidates like Browne hope you've just heard the name, wandered onto the campaign Web site, maybe caught the ideological riff on C-SPAN.

"What we have is a marketing problem," Browne concedes. "We have a product that will improve people's lives markedly, but it's hard to get their ear."

Each time a presidential election rolls around, scores of Americans file petitions with the Federal Election Commission to run. Some are kooks, some are silly. One guy campaigns as leader of the "Lettuce Party." Another is a Los Angeles comedian using his presidential Web site to crack jokes. His solution for the health care crisis? "Dress warm, wear a coat, don't get sick."

But many others earnestly hit the hustings nationwide with unshrinking ideas on their lips and democracy in the soul.

John Hagelin bears the Natural Law Party's holistic banner of preventive health care, innovative education and renewable energy. Across the rift, conservative Howard Phillips leads the Constitution Party toward election day. Browne and his laissez-faire Libertarians, founded in 1971 on the belief that government should offer a limited national defense and not much else, have done well enough to qualify for federal matching funds--tax dollars they studiously refuse to accept.

Very few have star power, and even those who can snag a headline often fail to rise very far. Ralph Nader of the Green Party and Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party are recognizable figures, men of conviction following the third-party path Ross Perot blazed in 1992 and 1996. Nader is drawing big crowds, but both register only a blip in presidential polls, well behind George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Most third-party candidates like Browne languish in front of crowds a tenth or a hundredth the size that Bush and Gore draw. Their campaign budgets would scarcely cover what the major parties spend on balloons and bumper stickers.

Theirs is a life of stewing for half a day at the airport to catch the cheapest flight. Denny's has become the official late-night restaurant of the Browne campaign.

There are no media throngs on their campaign bus, mostly because there generally is no campaign bus.

Yet they keep chugging, fueled by thimbles full of success. In an online campaign journal he keeps, Browne notes when he rises half a percentage point in some presidential poll.

For the hordes of anonymous campers trudging up the steep hill that leads to the Oval Office, this is a fight to finish third, to build a political party in a nation with an MTV attention span and a growing distaste for politics.

And therein lie the hopes of Harry Browne.

A Salesman Hawking Change

You have almost certainly never heard of him. But he is a salesman to the core, this politician named Harry. And has he got something to sell.

We'll call him Harry, because just about everyone eventually calls him that, as if this man running for president is a favorite uncle.

So we find Harry standing, all 6 feet, 4 inches of him, a youngish 67 and Jimmy Stewart skinny, with his arms crossed meeting folks assembling this midweek evening in La Crosse.

A tidy city of 51,000 cuddled next to the Mississippi's upper reaches, La Crosse is dominated by a couple of colleges, a few manufacturing plants, a brewery and, as one local puts it, "a lot of stubborn Germans."

Harry wants to change that, to sell the crowd on the Libertarian philosophy of super small government and unassailable personal freedom. The white-haired presidential candidate in the coal black suit seems subdued tonight, but a Cheshire cat grin creases his pallid face whenever a supporter approaches.

Ritch Charles, a 49-year-old shipping clerk from nearby Onalaska, is meeting Harry for the first time. Still, it's as if they're best pals. It's hello Harry, some small talk, then over to the food platters inside the matchbox-size meeting room.

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