NEW HAMPSHIRE -- Covering the primary up here in this subzero battleground state, I've done a fair number of radio interviews. Callers ask if the primary race is really as absurd as it looks on television. I relay funny stories from the campaign trail, and we all have a good laugh at the expense of the Dems.
That was the routine until late last week, anyway, when lighthearted ribbing of liberals gave way to white-hot anger at President Bush, after his recent push for de facto "not an amnesty" amnesty for illegal immigrants. I took dozens of calls and was overwhelmed by the enormity and ferocity of the response.
The question was no longer "Is Clark the anti-Dean?" but, "Will a Buchanan come forward to challenge Bush?" "Betrayal" was an oft-used term. At a weekend college politics conference, forlorn-looking young Republicans with "Bush-Cheney" buttons on asked me who else was on the Republican ballot?
ENTER BLAKE ASHBY, 39, a Missouri entrepreneur and, frankly, the least odd of the nine no-name Republican candidates challenging Bush here in New Hampshire. In the mid-'90s Ashby co-founded an independent communications business in the basement of a laundromat and eventually sold it to a competitor. Today he remains self-employed, helping his clients get businesses off the ground -- when he isn't running for president, that is.
Ashby is articulate and has been on the ground working hard since November. He is also a former Bush supporter, dismayed at the president's abandonment of the traditional "prudence and caution" of the Republican Party in everything from economics to foreign policy to immigration.
"For every Democrat and swing vote Bush has bought with our tax dollars, he deserves to lose a Republican vote," Ashby says. "I think the president is a good human being. He seems like a very warm and caring person. But he has put politics over principle one too many times."
Ashby's take on the immigration debacle is that we should not be surprised. After all, he said, this is just another payoff that began with "No Child Left Behind" and continued through the farm subsidies bill, protectionist tariffs, campaign finance reform, and the prescription drug bill.
"When is this man going to stop?" Ashby asks, exasperated, at one point during a recent interview. "I thought I was voting for Eisenhower and I got Lyndon Johnson." Ashby jokes a moment later: "Of course, Johnson isn't nearly liberal enough for today's Democrats."
Ashby speculates that Bush's proposed immigration reforms have a good chance of being killed by a Republican Congress -- that Bush has burned up too much of his political capital to pass another liberal program. But that it was proposed in the first place is held up as another example of unprincipled leadership.
"I'm all for immigration, and I'm all for the free market and global trade," Ashby says. "But most Americans agree we must protect our borders. Just because we haven't done a perfect job of patrolling those borders doesn't mean we should just stop trying to do it. We shouldn't surrender on an issue of such national and economic security."
THE UPSTART CANDIDATE and businessman is also skeptical about just how much this plan will help illegal immigrants. "Once we grant legal status to these people, companies won't hire them anymore," he says. "They'll hire the next batch of illegals. These companies have already proven that they are willing to go outside the law, if it means they can pay lower wages and deny their workers basic rights. Why should we expect them to clean up their act now?"
And what of legal immigrants who have come through arduous legal channels? he asks. "Do we tell them 'Hey, you should have just paid someone $1,000 to sneak you over the border'?"
The efforts of the president to make Democrats' issues his own has prevented any real conservative reform from taking place, Ashby says. "The sad truth is if we had a Democratic president we wouldn't have a prescription drug bill, we wouldn't be talking about amnesty. At every turn, the president has strong-armed his party into abandoning their principles."
His campaign is going better than expected, he says, "with the caveat that I don't have a chance." Ashby didn't have a game plan going in, he just "got so damn mad" that he decided to spend some of his small fortune to make a statement: "Fiscal conservatives have been taken for granted by this president, and I wanted to make sure there was a way to protest that."
The businessman may not be creating the kind of perfect storm that blew 37 percent of the vote Pat Buchanan's way in 1992 against George the First, but there is a growing buzz around his candidacy. This state is not always kind to George W. Bush -- just four years ago, John McCain drubbed him by 18 points. Ashby certainly will not give the president that kind of run for his money, but with two weeks to go and a growing chorus of discontent, he may yet register a protest vote louder than any of us suspect.