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CONCORD — A man in a fuzzy gray American flag parka stood in front of the bright television camera lights, squinting into the glare, and announced his intention to become the next president of the United States. His two elementary school age children, or his “staffers” as he called them, passed out copies of his self-published plan to fix America.

Tipping his cowboy hat to the crowd and media gathered before him, Robert Haines began his speech, “Many of these essays were written while I was incarcerated.” Over the next three minutes, the recently paroled Haines described himself as a “renaissance man,” invited everyone to Pennsylvania, and explained that his education plan was written entirely by his wife but that he “agree[d] with most of it.” A buzzer rang. His time was up. Recognizing his speech was a bit light on issues, Haines said his full agenda was laid out in his book. “I’ll gladly photocopy it for you,” he added.

So began a series of speeches by 17 so-called minor candidates at the Tuck Library, just a hop, skip and a jump from the State House in Concord. Anyone with $1,000 and a dream can get on the ballot in New Hampshire. All told, 14 Republicans and 23 Democrats have answered that call. It might come as a surprise to some that there are candidates more “minor” than Carol Moseley Braun or weirder than Dennis Kucinich, but the Tuck Library forum made the case quite well.

Harry Braun, an energy analyst and candidate for the Democratic nomination, promises to make America energy independent within five years by building giant “wind ships.” These floating wind power stations spread across the ocean will have the added benefit of blocking nasty corporate fishermen from “murdering” the ocean. Braun’s message was, however, ultimately hopeful. “It’s 11:59 for spaceship earth. We need to move at warp speed to save what’s left.” Aye, Aye, Captain.

BRAUN WASN’T THE ONLY candidate with his mind on the stars. Democrat Fern Penna promised a colony on Mars by his second term. He also explained that the only reason Howie Dean was the Democratic frontrunner and not he was that “I refuse to pay off the DNC.” His analysis was somewhat dour: “Our economy is a disaster. If you think this country isn’t being eaten alive by a cancer, you’re fooling yourself.”

Democrat Ed O’Donnell managed to strike a position far enough to the left to make Ralph Nader sound like Pat Buchanan. Included in his plan: No guns in America, “period,” mental health workers in every high school, a four-day work week, “living wage” jobs, ending obesity, and, finally, a “foreign policy that feeds and clothes every Third World country.”

There was star power, too, however, as Lyndon LaRouche showed up with his entourage. I’ve never quite understood how a cranky old man who speaks almost exclusively about the minutiae of economic policy has been able to attract such a rabid following among dirty, mad-at-their-dad hippies. LaRouche, on his eighth bid for the White House, gave one of his signature humble speeches. “Now is the time of reckoning,” he said. “Those people who have made the mistake of not voting for me in the past are now paying the price for it.”

On and on they came. Some, like Republican John Buchanan (“No relation to James or Pat”), were running to demand Bush tell “what he knew and when he knew it” about September 11. Vice-presidential candidate Flora Bleckner, wearing dark glasses and red gloves, wanted to get Cheney out of office so he wouldn’t force Bush into any more bad ideas (“like Iraq”). Republican Millie Howard wants to abolish the IRS and give every American citizen a “birthright stipend” of $833 a month. “It’s time to throw off this government and create one for the people,” she shouted.

Others were less crazy and painfully sincere, like Democrat Willie Felix Carter, a retired Air Force officer and man of faith, who was running simply to acknowledge that God was “another partner in this country’s freedom.” Or Republican Blake Ashby, a young Republican horrified at the lack of “prudence and caution” in President Bush’s bread-and-circus-like fiscal policy. Or Catherine Bateman, running as the Teen Voice 2004 candidate. Teens across the country vote on which issues matter most to them online and Bateman wants to represent those issues in the election.

In the middle of the event, a New Hampshire state legislator gave me his own analysis of the situation. “After seeing all of these characters, I feel like I should be running for president.”

Perhaps the most honest speech of the day was given by Democrat Robert Linnell, an 81-year-old World War II veteran. “Don’t vote for me,” he said. “I’m going to lose, and you’d be wasting your vote. I just want the chance to be heard.”

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