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Crashing the party: Republican strategist turned gay rights activist ponders a White House run

Potential Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger, a political strategist turned gay rights activist, has been campaigning in New Hampshire with the hope of influencing the debate about his party's policies.

"I consider myself a moderate like my boss and mentor, Ronald Reagan," Fred is fond of saying. "You're never going to agree 100 percent with any candidate. I'm more toward the center, and New Hampshire is a centrist state."

It also rewards long-shot candidates who log miles and shake hands. Jimmy Carter, a virtual unknown before the 1976 campaign, turned New Hampshire into a launching pad with a "Jimmy Who?" strategy. Pat Buchanan, who'd never been elected to public office, won the primary in 1996. John McCain and Hillary Clinton, hampered by establishment baggage, staged comebacks here in 2008 by dropping their guards and reveling in retail politics.

That's what Fred is doing. His goal is to get into a debate and nudge the GOP's conversation, like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) did in 2008. He wants to make other candidates answer for their statements (or lack thereof) on gay rights. He wants to crash the party.

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On April 10, 1972, Fred ganked a security badge, talked his way into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and walked onstage with a herd of celebrities to salute Charlie Chaplin. Fred stood between Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret as the silent film star received an honorary Oscar.

Typical Fred. Fred likes a challenge, and the spotlight. He likes to find a way around the word "no," to network above his paygrade. As a high schooler growing up in Glencoe, Ill., Fred would dress up, take the train into Chicago, waltz into formal banquets and enjoy a fancy meal as if he belonged.

"He loved to be the center of attention, but also the engineer behind the scenes," says his good friend Gary Wolfson, who attended high school and the University of Denver with Fred. "He always tells people he was a class clown. I think of him more as the class instigator."

He wasn't a standout student or athlete, but his Eddie Haskell nature was a fit for politics. He phone-banked for Nelson Rockefeller's 1964 presidential campaign and worked for Charles Percy's 1966 and 1972 Senate campaigns. Intent on cloaking his sexuality from his Chicago life, he bought a red Cougar convertible at age 23 and drove it to Los Angeles under the guise of becoming an actor.

In a span of three years, he was a passenger in "Airport 1975" and a model for an Edge shaving cream commercial directed by John Hughes, and he won a recurring role on a "Welcome Back, Kotter" spinoff that never aired.

His heart was in politics, though, and he got a foot in the door at the Dolphin Group, a feared and revered consulting firm for conservative candidates and causes. For 27 years he specialized in opposition research, digging up unsavory facts that could sink opponents and sway public opinion. He worked on Reagan's '80 and '84 campaigns alongside firebrand Lee Atwater. He toured the relatives of William Horton's victims around the country in '88 to spin an exaggerated narrative about Dukakis's stance on crime. Fred fought anti-smoking ordinances for big tobacco in the '90s by peddling polling data that was criticized by some elected officials and academics for being unscientific and deceptive.

"Fred doesn't smoke, but he would show up at these Philip Morris-related events with a fake cigarette in his mouth, kind of tongue-and-cheek, keeping a sense of humor," says Nicholas Thimmesch II, a senior writer in the Reagan administration and longtime Washington media consultant. "He may not even have thought smoking was a good thing, but he did believe Philip Morris had a legitimate gripe against ridiculous tobacco lawsuits and restaurant smoking bans. I think Fred embraces freedom, and that goes for the freedom to be married."

But he led a double life for decades: Savvy, straight-acting strategist at work, gay man who had long-term relationships and wrote checks to LGBT causes at home.


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