DES MOINES -- Billy Jack -- older, wider, but still kickin' butt! -- is sitting in the back of the convention hall, watching the "major" presidential candidates parade across a stage to the rhythms of prerecorded triumphalist presidential-campaign-type music. Billy Jack is unimpressed. These candidates up there don't look so "major" to him.

Is Paul Tsongas major? Is Doug Wilder major? Jerry Brown? Has any of them ever kicked a bad guy in the face from a standing start and then fended off dozens of racist yahoos before finally succumbing to a cowardly blindside blow to the back of the head?

Only Tom Laughlin -- alias Billy Jack -- can say that.

"I got 125 million people who not only know Billy Jack, but also have an attitude toward him as someone who took on the politically corrupt town bosses," says Laughlin/Jack. "People never think of me as an actor. I'm not an actor. I'm Billy Jack."

He is the man who turned a low-budget movie into one of the Top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time to that date. Yet now, 20 years later, at age 60, he can't even get up and talk to these Iowa Democrats, the caucus people, at their big Jefferson/Jackson Day shindig. He's a fringe candidate, and that's exactly where he sits, in the back of the hall, separated from the rest of the crowd by empty tables.

In the distance, Jerry Brown is chopping at the air dramatically. His words lose their fidelity as they cross the hall -- " ... take this country back ... moral agents of change ... "

The last time Laughlin was at one of these speechathons, he was allowed to talk, but only for five minutes and only when everyone else had left and the volunteers were folding up the chairs. Only C-Span picked up his stump speech, the essence of which is that professional politicians are poisoning America.

"Do you know the price I'm paying for running?" he asks. "Do you know what everyone else in the media and the {movie} industry thinks of me? Egomaniac. Deluded. Sonny Bono."

He gives up halfway through the Bill Clinton speech and heads back to Guido's, the nice restaurant at the Hotel Savery. He orders a steak.

"Elvis Presley," he says, waving a chunk of meat on his fork, "saw it nine times in one sitting."

One of the differences between the early '90s and the early '70s is that fanatical earnestness is now out of fashion. This is a pragmatic time. Ideologues are viewed with suspicion. Anyone who talks about "changing the world" is immediately cast as a pie-eyed dreamer, if not a kook.

Tom Laughlin is just as earnest as ever. His earnestness has thrust him into the most quixotic journey available to an American citizen: running for the presidency of the United States.

The Hands-On Moviemaker

There was a time when he was compared to Orson Welles. He was one of those do-everything filmmakers -- he raised his own money, wrote the script, directed the film and placed himself in front of the camera as the star. His wife, Delores Taylor, handled the producer chores and also starred. Laughlin's first movie cost only $28,000 in 1958; it was called "The Proper Time" and was about a stutterer.

After a hiatus while he and his wife ran a Montessori school, Laughlin returned to the screen in 1967 as a half-breed ex-Green Beret karate-kicking do-gooder named Billy Jack in another low-budget film called "Born Losers." Laughlin returned in 1971 with "Billy Jack," more of a remake of "Born Losers" than a sequel. His wife played Jean, the headmistress of a Freedom School on an Indian reservation.

Today, the movie is a period piece, a cinematic tour of hippie romanticism and anti-authoritarianism. The young people in the movie are invariably funny, peaceful, tolerant and creative; old people are humorless, ignorant, violent and physically repulsive. Spirituality is embodied by the Native Americans and their rituals (see Billy Jack dance with a snake!). The Freedom School students spend their hours singing folk songs, riding horses and performing improvisational theater. Readin'? 'Ritin'? 'Rithmetic? No sign of that nonsense!

Perhaps the real appeal of Billy Jack was that he was a counterculture superhero, with all the invincibility and timely arrivals of the more traditional, proto-fascist heroes like Superman, James Bond, Buck Rogers and Dirty Harry, and he predated by many years the similarly cartoonish figure of Indiana Jones. The superhero mystique was captured in the "Indian-style" way the schoolkids and their teacher had of contacting Billy Jack: They'd just wish he was there. And he'd show up. On his white horse.

The movie has a pacifist message, but the great attraction for audiences was the periodic explosions of violence. Billy Jack is torn between his genuine desire to be peaceful and accommodating and his instinctual need to kick some major butt.

Laughlin still remembers the one great line. When he's surrounded. Face to face with the evil businessman. The bad guy says Billy Jack is a dead man.

"I say, 'Well, you know what I'm going to do then, just for the hell of it? I'm going to take my right foot and I'm going to whomp you on that side of your face. And you know what? There's not a damn thing you're going to be able to do about it.' "

And then suddenly WHOMP! Billy Jack's foot is up on the guy's right ear, and the evil jerk crumples to the ground.

Laughlin insists that the movie's success wasn't due to the public fascination with a man who solves problems by whompin' bad guys in the face. He says the people on the street caught the pacifist message at the end of the movie, when Billy Jack gives up to authorities rather than keep fighting, cutting a last-minute deal that lets the Freedom School stay open. Only the critics, the intellectuals, missed the point. Laughlin once said in an interview, "To me 'Billy Jack' was so overwhelmingly clear it astounded me that I'm the only guy who got the message."

In other words, even in the context of understanding the true meaning of "Billy Jack," Tom Laughlin found himself an outsider. A fringe interpreter.

A few months after it opened, the movie had taken in about $4 million in receipts. A profitable return, but nothing special. By rights, the movie should have disappeared at that point.

This is where Laughlin's almost bizarre perseverance -- the very quality that years later would make him decide that a run for the presidency had some logic to it -- paid off. Rather than let the movie die, Laughlin spent three years trying to get the movie re-released, constantly pushing studio executives to give it another run, cutting deals, and eventually taking total control over the distribution of the film, all the way down to renting individual movie houses and placing ads in the local newspapers, staging his movie as though it were a rock band on national tour. By 1974 he was placing advertisements saying the movie was "one of the most popular motion pictures of all time," and -- behold -- it proved to be true. Suddenly, every 14-year-old kid knew about Billy Jack.

In those heady days, remembers Laughlin, "I was the hottest thing in town. Could've made any film in town."

So what film did he make? Another Billy Jack movie. This was called "The Trial of Billy Jack," and it opened in 1,200 theaters nationwide, the kind of release that's common today but unheard of at the time. The movie made money, but was eviscerated by critics. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael called it "the most extraordinary display of sanctimonious self-aggrandizement the screen has ever known." Laughlin himself admitted later that he went too far with it. "I got too preachy. Got too inflated with my own opinions and my own ideas and put 'em out too heavy," he was quoted as saying in 1976.

Laughlin became famous, though not nearly so famous as his alter ego. Billy Jack was a celebrity; Tom Laughlin was a trivia answer. Still, for years, strangers came up to him and said things like:

"Thank you for saving my life."

And: "My son is graduating from law school, thanks to Billy Jack."

In 1975, Laughlin blew some of his new-found wealth on a box office flop called "The Master Gunfighter." He decided to return to his bread and butter, Billy Jack, and this time his goal was nothing less than to remake one of the great films of all time, the Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Laughlin's title: "Billy Jack Goes to Washington."

It was a disaster. During filming, Laughlin complained about bureaucratic hassles when he tried to film at the Jefferson Memorial and other sites in the capital. Worse, the film was never released. It did have a premiere in Washington in 1977, but this time neither critics nor regular people seemed to like it much, and Laughlin simply shelved it.

Billy Jack was gone.

Billy Jack's New Career

In his place appeared Tom Laughlin, author, teacher, lecturer. He and Taylor began teaching at the University of Colorado. She taught self-assertiveness to women. He taught Jungian psychology and wrote two books on the topic. According to a biographical note in his latest book, "The Mind & Cancer," Laughlin is "known as one of the most effective interpreters of dreams since Carl Jung."

The cancer book is classic Billy Jack: It attacks the American Medical Association and "mainstream medicine" for ignoring the possible connections between the mind and the development of cancer. Written with James P. Moran M.D., the book states in the concluding chapter that "it is essential that a therapy ... help the patients to see that the meaning they are seeking lies within their own soul. There, unbeknownst to them, lies the Immortal One waiting to be discovered and experienced ... the Immortal One, who contains their Greater Intelligence which transcends their ego's limited intelligence. It is this innate Greater Intelligence which alone can provide them with the answers they are so desperately seeking."

Laughlin and Taylor tried to make one last Billy Jack film, "The Return of Billy Jack," in 1985, but gave up after a few weeks, totally broke. Laughlin says that his house -- a mansion in Brentwood, Calif., with a tennis court and rooms designed with Jefferson's Monticello in mind -- was foreclosed in the mid-1980s, and he is now suing to get it back.

"We lost everything," he says. "It was a horror of horrors."

Earlier this year he had a new project: A movie about a Schwarzkopf-like general who returns from an overseas war and runs for president. During the course of researching the film, jetting around the country and talking to voters, Laughlin got an even better idea: He would run for president himself.

In real life.

The Guy Next Door

Two guys in suits are getting onto the elevator, brushing by the wide frame of a man getting off. Just before the elevator doors close one of them looks back at the retreating figure and gasps: "That's him right there!"

"By God it is," says the other.

Billy Jack! The rumors are true.

A hotel bulletin board says: Laughlin for President, Room 309.

It sounds so legitimate, posted right there beneath the notices for the Harkin for President dance.

At 3:30, Billy Jack is going to hold a press conference. The only question is, Will there be any press? Laughlin has been hanging around the hotel all morning and there's hardly anyone in sight. Iowa is dead this time around, conceded to the favorite son senator, Tom Harkin. There's also nearly a foot of snow on the ground. Jefferson-Jackson Day may turn out to be a dud. As might his press conference.

Laughlin sits in the coffee shop of the hotel, spinning theories (BCCI, Oswald, October Surprise), espousing positions (free health care for everyone, close military bases in Europe -- "I have a standing offer of $1,000 to anyone who can tell me what we have any troops in Europe for"), ragging on President Bush ("He is the worst disaster as a foreign policy leader that we've had in modern times") and just chatting away in a breezy manner, when along comes an actual voter. She's the leader of her county's Democratic Party.

He exchanges greetings and small talk for a moment, and then she says: "What's your name?"

"Tom Laughlin," he says.

"I thought so." She chuckles, indicates her own girth and says, "We all get wider."

She then wanders over to Sen. Bob Kerrey, who's having breakfast 20 feet away.

"See, Bob is smart," Laughlin says. "He sits her down, schmoozes with her."

Later, Kerrey stops by the table on the way out. He literally looks polished: There's a shine to his skin. Something is making him look like a doll, it's not clear what. (Is his head slightly undersized?) Laughlin starts off by saying, "Jerry Brown sends his regards," a reference to Kerrey's infamous Jerry Brown-and-the-lesbians joke, and Laughlin bursts out with a big laugh at his own witticism, balls up his meaty fist and throws a mock punch to Kerrey's gut, one of those we're-just-regular-guys moves you see down at the billiard hall or the Moose Lodge.

Laughlin proceeds to trash Brown for about five minutes while Kerrey patiently stands there, emitting astonishingly few words. Kerrey reeks of caution. He smiles and laughs at appropriate moments, so it's evident that he is physically a living creature, but otherwise he's a blank, like a prototype model that escaped from the Candidate Lab before they installed the Charisma software.

Which is why, after Kerrey is gone, Laughlin seems like a treat. He doesn't cheat you! He's easy to talk to, fun to be around, good company. Sure, he's a bit windy (ask a question, get 30 minutes of digressions), but at least doesn't hold anything back. For all his boasting, he's like the guy next door, the one with all the theories. You want to talk about the Kennedy assassination? Fair enough: Oswald had nothing to do with it. He was on the second floor of the Texas School Book Depository, not the sixth.

He is always making "standing offers." Like: "A thousand dollars to anyone who can tell me why invading Panama was any different than invading Kuwait."

Professional politicians are his obsession. Hates 'em. "Nobody in Washington reads," he says. "I'd like to find one person who's read the Koran." He says, "If there is real peace in the Middle East, I'll cut off my little finger. It's not possible. You have to read the Koran!"

The Idea Man Stands Alone

His platform has 26 points, including cutting taxes for the middle class, raising corporate income taxes, creating a Cabinet position for women and minorities, another Cabinet post for senior citizens, veterans and children, eliminating all nuclear weapons within five years, and removing the CIA from White House and congressional control. But he's learned something in this campaign: "Nobody in the press is interested in your ideas."

That's because the press generally covers the election as a popularity contest (which is, of course, what it is, winner take all) rather than as a competition of ideas. Laughlin can't stomach that. He thinks that because he has all these ideas, he ought to get exposure, even if his chances of winning the nomination are zilch.

He asks the pertinent questions himself: "Is he deluded? Is he on some ego trip? Is he some pathetic deluded has-been?" But he doesn't exactly give an answer. He never really explains why an actor who hasn't made a movie in 15 years -- and who, unlike Ronald Reagan, never achieved any other elective office -- should be running for the presidency of the United States. He seems better at describing what's absurd about his candidacy than he is at describing what's sensible about it. Truly it is meritorious that someone can identify and articulate the potential criticisms that he might face, but that is not the same thing as refuting them.

Laughlin has one paid assistant and no visible electoral support except for the occasional person like Hazel Foley, of Camanche, Iowa, who put a "Welcome Billy Jack" sign at the edge of town.

"The thing I like about him the very very most," says Foley, "is that he really cares about people. I don't think he would have to have any other standards. Just the way he cares about people and the Earth should win him that presidential election."

Laughlin couldn't believe how the press ignored him in New Hampshire. Surely they would have been curious enough to wander by the booth for at least five minutes. Certainly he, Billy Jack, would have been curious if, right there in the some room, running for president, was -- and this is the name that pops right out of his own mouth -- Chuck Norris. It's the perfect comparison: Both Billy Jack and Chuck Norris communicate best with their feet.

But he's not giving up. Billy Jack is nothing if not persistent. That's why he came to Iowa, and why he called his press conference.

At 3:30, there is one news reporter in the room, from the Cedar Rapids paper, and a photographer from the Associated Press. There is a pitcher of ice water on the table, and three more pitchers of ice water in the back of the room on a counter. Laughlin's assistant, Robin Hutton, has left three vacant seats with signs in front of them: "Ron Brown"; "John Roehrick"; and "Tom Harkin." These are people Laughlin has "challenged" to attend the press conference. The first is the head of the Democratic National Committee; the second has the parallel job in the state of Iowa; the third is going to win the Iowa caucuses. Laughlin holds up a poster saying, "Tom Harkin Is Unfit to be President!" And: "I Hereby Call on Him to Withdraw From the Race!"

The fine print states that Harkin has fixed the Iowa caucuses and "shown himself to be the epitome of the sleezy {sic} backroom-professional-politician the American people and the decent hardworking voters in Iowa have grown to detest."

(The poster also states, "I have a standing offer of $1,000 to anyone who can tell me, in view of the fact {Clarence} Thomas may sit on the Supreme Court for the next 40 years ... why the vote on Thomas could not have been postponed for 90 days in order to learn the truth of the whole sickening affair. ...")

But Laughlin doesn't say any of this out loud. He just stands there, posing while the photographer keeps snapping pictures. The Cedar Rapids reporter leaves without taking any notes.

"Thanks for coming," Laughlin says to the exiting reporter. "Glad to give you all that information. I'm sure it's going to be a front-page story."

A supporter shows up. He's David Neff, a Northern Cheyenne Indian who serves on the Iowa Democratic Party state committee. He hasn't actually committed to Laughlin, but he likes him, likes what he stands for. Neff identifies himself as the radical on the state committee. And he's seen "Billy Jack" about 10 or 15 times, he says.

"Some of the things he's saying are just so appropriate, so correct," says Neff. "I think Tom unfortunately is going at it a little in the wrong way. You don't continually take potshots at the local gods of politics and expect rank and file people to jump on your bandwagon."

But that's the Billy Jack way! Laughlin hasn't ever tried to be popular. He's not a schmoozer, he can't even bring himself to wear a Laughlin for President button. The strange fact is, he doesn't really want to be out here in Iowa in the first place.

"This is their life," Laughlin says of the other candidates. "This is their Holy Grail. This is their Nirvana. This is the most detestable thing I've ever done. I would love to be out of this tomorrow and go back to my mountaintop."

And yet he's here, driven by some mysterious desire. A belief, perhaps, in the movie version of American politics, in the Capraesque vision of a place where a single courageous citizen can take on the corrupt national leaders and win. Beat them at their own game. Confound the skeptics. Do like Jimmy Stewart. Billy Jack goes to Washington. Maybe there's a movie in this thing yet.

But for now, there's not much to see. The press conference is over. Tom Laughlin will not make the papers tomorrow. No one drank the ice water.

CAPTION: Candidate Tom Laughlin with some of his campaign literature.

CAPTION: Tom Laughlin in the famous "whomping" mode of Billy Jack 20 years ago, far left; performing a manhood ritual in the movie "Billy Jack"; Democratic presidential candidate Laughlin today.

CAPTION: At the "Billy jack Goes to Washington" premiere: The movie was never released.