In the banquet room of an antebellum mansion here, Michael Peroutka seems to sense what's nagging at his audience.
"I know what you're thinking," the Constitution Party candidate for president tells about 100 men gathered for a conservative Christian legal seminar. "Why does this nut cake do this? Why is he running for president of the United States when he doesn't stand a chance?"
As he answers his own question, the genial middle-age lawyer, virtually unknown outside of his suburban Maryland home, sounds a bit like Sen. John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat with whom he expects to share the November ballot in Maryland and 40 other states. Namely, that the USA Patriot Act is unconstitutional; that President Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction to lead the nation into war; and that a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is a bad idea (though for entirely different reasons).
But the rest of Peroutka's answer helps explain why his platform is far closer to the fringes of U.S. politics. And why it has even attracted the scrutiny of a national civil rights organization that tracks hate groups. Peroutka tells audiences that his campaign is divinely inspired and that his party seeks to remake the United States into a Christian state, one that no longer adheres to the separation of church and state.
"This is a spiritual battle," he said. "It's fought out in culture, it's fought out in politics, it's fought out in the economy. But it's a spiritual battle. It's a question of who is lord."
This is the answer that brings the loudest cheers from Peroutka's backers, many of whom say they felt abandoned this year as better-known candidates, including Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan, who share their views on abortion, gay rights and other issues, opted not to run. They give Peroutka the chance to gather more than the 98,000 votes registered nationally for the party's 2000 presidential candidate, Howard Phillips.
Peroutka is one of four minor-party presidential candidates on the ballot in a significant number of states this year, each with a message narrowcast to a relatively small group of followers who believe that neither Republicans nor Democrats address their concerns.
They can have an impact on the outcome of a campaign -- one need look no further than Ralph Nader's 2000 candidacy for evidence of that. At the same time, said Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota professor who tracks third-party campaigns, they are prone to unorthodox ideas that keep them from breaking through in a meaningful way.
Libertarians talk of a return to the gold standard. The Green Party, Jacobs said, wants to do away with the Defense Department. Peroutka's Constitution Party believes that the nation's founding documents have been deeply misunderstood and are in fact firmly rooted in Christian principles.
"They're almost utopians, in a way," Jacobs said. "They're folks who are really disenchanted with the political establishment and feel very intensely that something drastic needs to be done."
Peroutka said encouragement for his national bid has come from a coterie of Maryland Republican lawmakers who, given the state's strong Democratic leanings, are familiar with long-odds campaigns. For years, he has been a financial benefactor to a group that includes state Sens. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick), Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) and Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford) and Dels. Herbert H. McMillan and Donald H. Dwyer Jr., both Anne Arundel Republicans.
Several of the lawmakers said they respect Peroutka's gumption for entering the race, but most have avoided direct involvement. Dwyer, however, directs an educational-outreach effort that is part of the debt-collections law firm Peroutka runs in Glen Burnie. The Institute on the Constitution, as it is called, sells 12-week seminar kits about the biblical perspective on the U.S. Constitution for $145.
The freshman lawmaker, who has drawn the ire of his colleagues with his anti-immigrant and anti-gay rhetoric, said he "wholeheartedly supports what Mr. Peroutka is trying to bring to the American people."
Last month, Dwyer joined Peroutka on a campaign swing though Utah and California and said he found a surprising number who, like him, believe that government should be promoting religious rights.
"What I'm learning," Dwyer said, "is that the things that we speak about . . . even though they sometimes may sound politically incorrect, they reach into the heart of true American citizens."
Some ideas at the heart of Peroutka's campaign have also drawn the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights law firm that tracks hate groups. Mark Potok, editor of the center's monthly intelligence report, said his group took note when Peroutka received a rare national endorsement from the League of the South, which he describes as a coalition of hard-line, "neo-Confederates" who espouse racist, anti-gay and anti-immigrant ideas.
The League of the South and the Constitution Party are "intimately related," Potok said. "About the only real differences are the Constitution Party essentially says nothing about race, at least explicitly, and it has no position on secession," the rights of Southern states to secede from the Union.
Otherwise, he said, they are extremely similar. Their key issues are a fervent opposition to abortion, spirited support for gun and states' rights, and strident views about the role Christianity should be playing in American life, he said.
Peroutka does not entirely dismiss Potok's assessment. A strict reading of the Constitution, he says, leads him to believe that the federal government has too much centralized power. "As a result of the War Between the States," Peroutka said in an interview, "you have a central government that tells you how much water you can have in your toilet bowl."
"As far as race is concerned," Peroutka said, "I believe there is one race, and that's the human race. That's my position."
Doug Phillips, a Peroutka supporter whose father, Howard Phillips, founded the Constitution Party in 1992 and ran as its presidential candidate in 1992, 1996 and 2000, said it is inevitable that fringe groups will latch on to parties that are in their infancy.
"But Michael is not a fringe candidate," Phillips said. "If ideas are wacky, inappropriate or offensive to our beliefs, they won't have credence with the party's leaders, and they certainly won't be put forward as part of our platform."
Peroutka was not, Phillips acknowledged, the party's initial choice to top the presidential ticket.
Earlier this year, he said, former Alabama chief justice Roy S. Moore -- famous for fighting to keep a reproduction of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse -- considered a run. When that fell through, Peroutka emerged as a consensus candidate.
His telegenic good looks and genial style with audiences had appeal. As did his ability to spend his own money. Records show he has lent $160,000 to his campaign.
Party leaders overlooked a trail of personal problems unearthed this year by the Baltimore City Paper, which included being stopped in the early 1990s on suspicion of driving under the influence -- he was not convicted -- and a painful split with his wife's two teenage daughters from a previous marriage. The couple lost custody of the girls to the state.
Peroutka said those episodes "weren't hidden from anybody." Although some say they weaken his image as a family man, Peroutka said he "only finds it relevant insofar as I was shown the evil that occurs when the jurisdiction of the family is invaded by agencies of the state."
Phillips said the Constitution Party doesn't expect Peroutka to win the White House. His supporters "understand that a party won't be built in a day." At the same time, he said, this is not "a lark. The folks I know have no interest in integrating back into the Republican Party."
Jacobs predicted that the Constitution Party will pass the 2004 election without registering much more of a blip on the electoral map than in 2000. But the long odds don't trouble Peroutka.
Speaking to the gathering at the Mimslyn Inn, he recounts how other significant concepts were, at first, dismissed as absurd: The Earth is round; humans will take flight; man will set foot on the moon.
"With that bit of background, let me share with you an absurd idea: We can restore the American Constitution," Peroutka tells them. "Is that absurd? Well, if it is, then there's hope for it."