Buddy Roemer had prepared for the presidential debate with the same rigor as other candidates, dressing in a suit, resting his voice and reviewing likely questions with his aides. Ten minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, he stood up from the desk in his small hotel room in downtown Washington and turned on the TV.
“What channel is this thing on again?” he asked. “I don’t want to miss the first question.”
He had not been invited to actually partake in the debate, so Roemer had again come up with an alternative: to pace in front of CNN and shout answers at the screen while two aides sat barefoot on his bed and tweeted his responses. “Can we order some room service?” one of them asked. They turned up the volume as eight other candidates strolled across the stage, each one introduced to a standing ovation. Romney. Bachmann. Gingrich. Cain. Santorum. Perry. Paul. Huntsman.
“This is the best our party has to offer?” Roemer said. “How the heck did we decide that these are our most electable candidates?”
That has become an maddening question for Roemer and more than a dozen other lesser-known presidential hopefuls, who wonder why they are ignored even in this wide-open Republican primary, in which voters express dissatisfaction with their options and shift from one temporary front-runner to the next.
Why not Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico? Why not Thad McCotter, a congressman from Michigan? Why not Fred Karger, a senior political consultant who advised three presidents?
And why not Roemer, 68, a former governor and congressman from Louisiana, a Harvard graduate, a cotton farmer’s son, a Methodist, a thriving businessman?
“What I’m learning is that becoming president is not always about experience and ideas,” Roemer said. “It’s also about money, fame and momentum.”
Like other unknown candidates, Roemer has been stuck in a cycle of anonymity ever since he formed his campaign and moved to New Hampshire in the summer, inviting his senior staff member to sleep on his couch and establishing a temporary headquarters at the coffee shop inside Barnes & Noble. He lacks money to buy advertisements, he said, “so even distant relatives don’t know” that he is running for president. Some pollsters forget to include him as an option in their polls. His low support numbers — usually 1 or 2 percent nationally — disqualify him from participating in debates.
While the top contenders stand straight and attempt to look presidential behind their lecterns in front of 6 million viewers on national television, Roemer fiddles with the buttons on a flat-screen TV in his ninth-floor hotel room, trying to improve the reception.
“The picture keeps going fuzzy,” he said. “This might be a long night.”
“Want me to call the front desk?” his campaign manager asked.
Roemer shook his head and grabbed a Diet Coke. For the next two hours, he listened to the moderator’s questions and shouted back at the TV while his staffers typed into their laptops. He clenched his fist, pounded it against the dresser and loosened his tie. “Bachmann and Newt are clueless on our liberties!” he said. And then: “Expand the drones!” And then: “Get out of Afghanistan. It’s a corrupt country.”
When the debate finally ended two hours later, Roemer took off his glasses, sat back at his hotel desk and wiped his forehead with a hand towel.
“How’d we do?” he asked his staffers.
“Good debate,” one said. “You answered 40 questions and got some new friends on Facebook.”
“It’s the only thing we’ve got, and it ain’t worth a damn,” Roemer said. He reached for the remote and turned off the TV. “I feel like I’m talking to myself.”
At first, he thought an audience would be waiting for him.
He decided to run for president a year ago, hiring some of his former political advisers and seeking advice from his friend John McCain. Roemer thought his best chance at the nomination was to win New Hampshire, so he rented a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Manchester and drove from Louisiana with two bowls, two plates and a trunk full of suits. His wife, a nurse who stayed home in Baton Rouge, took pictures of his best jacket-and-tie combinations to help make sure he would always match.
He rented furniture for $238 a month, bought a deck of cards so he could play solitaire and hung a map of New Hampshire on the wall in the living room. On Sundays after church, he sometimes drove 20 minutes to the nearest movie theater, where he would kill time before the show eating popcorn by himself in the lobby and chatting with the theater staff.
He had been out of politics for almost 20 years, but he still felt confident that his opinions would resonate. Repeal health-care reform. Raise the eligibility age for Social Security. Seal the border and enforce immigration laws.
It was a divided country, and he had been a Democrat and now a Republican. The economy was in crisis, and he had earned an MBA from Harvard and built a chain of community banks worth nearly $1 billion without foreclosing on a single customer, he said. The tea party and Occupy Wall Street were protesting greed and corruption, and Roemer had never accepted political donations of more than $100.
“I got into the race because I thought I was the right person,” he said, “and because I thought I could win.”
He based his campaign strategy on retail politics and hosted town halls across New Hampshire, but sometimes only two or three people showed up. He drove to an event upstate and got lost during a snowstorm in Canada. He phoned 20 New Hampshire voters each day and sometimes had to summon the courage to explain why he was calling. “I was embarrassed to say I was running for president, because nobody had even heard of me,” he said.
Far more defeating were the external expectations of a modern presidential campaign, by which his always fell short. Most early debates invited only candidates who had at least 2 percent support in five national polls, but sometimes Roemer wasn’t even included in five. Another debate required candidates to have raised $500,000 in the past 90 days, and he had managed only half of that. The Florida Republican Party picked nine people for its ballot and chose not to include him. South Carolina charges $35,000 to be on its ballot, so Roemer decided to run there as a write-in.
One morning last week, he walked into his new campaign office in Manchester, took off his jacket and learned immediately about another expense beyond his means.
“Nevada wants $10,000 for its caucus,” said Carlos Sierra, his campaign manager. “We have to decide today.”
“Is it ever a decision?” Roemer asked. “I wish we had a choice.”
While Mitt Romney and Rick Perry occasionally raise as much as a few million dollars in a day, mostly from donations of $1,500 or more, Roemer’s average contribution is about $60. He raises slightly less than $30,000 a month and pays more than a quarter of that to an accountant who helps log and disclose his donors with the Federal Election Commission. He can afford three staff members, and Sierra has gone two months without a paycheck. Roemer’s business cards were bought on Vistaprint.com. He stays at the Comfort Inn when he travels to New York. He still covets lawn signs.
For obvious reasons, Roemer has made campaign finance reform his signature issue. He calls Gingrich “the lobbyist,” Romney “the 1 percent,” and blasts Jon Huntsman for benefiting from a million-dollar super-PAC funded by his father. Meanwhile, Roemer had worked to become a cult favorite on the Internet and in the Occupy Wall Street movement. “I’m hoping their momentum is my momentum,” he said.
On this day, the biggest event on his schedule was an appearance at an Occupy rally in Manchester. The rally was scheduled to start at 6, so Roemer arrived at the park 15 minutes early with two of his aides. The temperature was below freezing, and he flipped up the collar of his overcoat and walked laps around the empty park.
Six o’clock came and went, and no protesters arrived. A car drove by and honked at Roemer and his staff. “They must think we’re the occupiers,” Roemer said.
Finally, at 6:15, Roemer’s director of scheduling looked at his watch and realized his boss’s parking meter was about to run out. Roemer had already received four $20 tickets in the past month; it was becoming another one of his campaign’s financial problems. Fearful of more tickets, his staff had taken to pausing its work every two hours to refill the meter.
“Governor, we better deal with your car now,” the scheduling director said.
“Okay. Let’s call it a night,” Roemer said. “There’s no audience here anyway.”