Presidential candidate Virgil Goode Jr. campaigns at a fundraiser dinner Sept. 15 in Roanoke, Va. where he was a guest speaker. The former congressman has qualified for the presidential ballot in Virginia, adding a potential obstacle to Republican Mitt Romney’s hopes of winning the pivotal state. (Don Petersen/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Climb in — brush that junk off the seat,” presidential candidate Virgil Goode commands, sliding into his mobile man cave. Fast-food wrappers and empty bottles are strewn on his car’s floor mats. “Goode for President” pamphlets, Goode pencils and Goode campaign buttons lie amid boxes of campaign literature covering the back seat. He is alone today, like many days. He is his own driver, strategist, scheduler, press man. He appears to be the portrait of a candidate going nowhere.

Except he might matter hugely in this race. Today, he is in Virginia, ground zero for his quixotic crusade, a battleground state where polls say Barack Obama narrowly leads Mitt Romney. Here, Goode, a proud conservative, a former six-term Virginia congressman and now the Constitution Party’s presidential nominee, stands at a mere 2 percent in polls. But that 2 percent worries Republicans, who see Goode’s scant support as carrying the potential to deprive Mitt Romney of Virginia’s closely contested 13 electoral votes and perhaps the election.

Privately, some Republicans snipe that Goode, who is already on the ballot in two dozen states, is hungry for attention after losing his congressional seat in 2008; that he wants nothing more now than to be a high-profile spoiler who ruins Romney’s chances in much the way Ralph Nader siphoned Florida votes and contributed to Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000. Some Republicans still hold out hope that Goode can be denied a place on the Virginia ballot, or that he will come to his senses and withdraw from the race in the name of Republican unity.

Goode’s response? Dream on.

“Why would I do that, when I think I can win and help change things?” he says. “Besides, I’m not impressed with Romney. I’m going to do well.”

‘He can’t win’

Today, Goode has come to the southwestern Virginia town of Lynchburg, near his old congressional district. He starts the car and cruises through the parking lot of E.C. Glass High School, where he has just finished a speech before about 40 students. The venue wasn’t exactly a campaign gold mine. Several students firmly challenged him, including Mitchell Swann, the 17-year-old head of the high school’s Young Republicans, who demanded, “Do you know you could take votes away from Mitt Romney and single-handedly let Barack Obama win the election?”

“The difference between Obama and Romney is the difference between tweedledum and tweedledee,” Goode told the students.

Swann was unimpressed. “He should pull out of the race,” Swann said at the end. “He persuaded no one here.” Swann looks genuinely confounded. “I mean, he can’t win. Why is he doing this?”

The young Swann had learned what many senior Republicans have long understood: The 65-year-old Goode is a lone wolf. Once a House Democrat, Goode left the party not long after hopelessly alienating its members by voting to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998. After a brief stint as an independent, he became a Republican, in time to confound many of his new allies with his maverick ways. He is running now to push deficit reduction, rail against the power of PACs and champion his idea of putting a moratorium on the issuance of green cards to immigrants until unemployment falls below 5 percent, an extension of his belief that “immigrants take jobs away from Americans.”

He doesn’t like Obama, but he reserves special scorn for Romney. “If he ever gets to the White House, people will say to me, in six months, ‘Virgil, you were right about Romney.’ I met Romney the last time he ran. We were in a room in the [Capitol], a group of us. But I didn’t think he understood a lot about policy. . . . And he sure doesn’t have strong beliefs about much.”

Goode has arrived now on Main Street in downtown Lynchburg and is distressed that he can’t find some of his campaign buttons. “I only have 500 — I can’t afford to lose them.” He keeps his campaign pamphlets in a side jacket pocket, the easier to thrust them out of nowhere at sometimes stunned strangers who don’t recognize him. “Here, take these,” he says to a young woman, handing her two pencils with his name on them. “Those are from my old congressional campaign. . . . But keep ’em anyway.”

He has already moved on, handing out brochures and old pencils on Main Street to people puzzling over his presence. Who is he? Running for what?

Then Goode enters the Right Barber Shop. This is his kind of place. No one is getting his hair cut at the moment, but a group of elderly men, gray-haired regulars who typically kill time by gabbing and playing checkers, are intrigued to see him. They recognize his name, know of the clout he once carried in these parts.

Just the same, they’re wondering what this politician wants from them. Before he mentions that he is running for anything, Goode tells the men what bothers him about the major presidential candidates, particularly the Republican. “I don’t know what you can be sure Romney really believes in. . . . I’m for cutting spending,” he says. “I’m for making sure Americans get jobs before other people do, and I’m not going to let jobs get outsourced overseas, like Romney let happen. We should do what Obama and Romney won’t do: Concentrate on Americans.”

Reclining in a barber chair, Doug Baldock, a semi-retired truck driver and political independent, languidly cocks his head to look Goode over. Baldock voted for John McCain over Obama in 2008, but he has doubts about Romney’s commitment to conservative causes, as well as his connection to middle-income truckers and laborers. What Goode is saying only exacerbates Baldock’s concerns about Romney, though he still can’t quite figure out what the former congressman is doing here.

Goode steps toward Baldock. “I’d say to people, ‘You can’t get anything here in America unless you’re a citizen or a naturalized citizen. Can’t bring in anybody with a green card unless unemployment in the country is under 5 percent.’ ”

“Well, I wish we had another candidate running,” Baldock says.

Goode starts passing out his pencils and pamphlets. He says softly, “If you’re not interested in Obama or Romney, you can all go with me.”

Baldock doesn’t understand Goode’s point.

“Gosh, he’s running for president,” another regular says.

“Really?” Baldock sits upright in the chair. “Hey, I completely missed that.”

Outside, another man is promising his support to Goode.

“We need a voice of dissension, and that’s what Virgil can be,” Baldock says from his chair after Goode leaves. “I’m gonna vote for him. . . . Doesn’t matter if Virgil wins. I don’t like Romney anyway. Hard to identify with a billionaire, whatever he is. . . . Now Virgil has . . . two of us.”

Two. Two men around a barbershop.

It is a microcosm of that 2 percent statewide, which converts to one yes out of every 50 voters, one yes for every 49 nos. That ratio sounds about right on this day in Lynchburg, where support for Goode is hard to see after the barbershop.

He doggedly hands out more pamphlets on sidewalks and inside shops to people who either don’t know him or don’t care to offer a whiff of encouragement. Their brusque nods say they have work of their own to do and no more time for this.

Goode never stops trying. But he does get weary, and sometimes a trifle distracted. Late in the afternoon, Goode walks into the shop of a coin dealer, where he suddenly becomes excited over the possibility of buying a half-ounce gold coin as a present for a family member. After much deliberation, Goode writes a check out for more than a thousand dollars to the grateful dealer.

But the money does nothing to ease the dealer’s disdain for Virgil Goode the candidate. “I’m for Romney,” Thomas Wood says later. “If we were in another state, what [Goode] is doing wouldn’t bother me at all. I’d say, ‘Good luck, brother’ — and I’d take his money. But Virginia is going to be close. It does bother me. Goode is causing problems. He is taking votes from Romney. He should withdraw right now.”

His mind made up

Few people close to Goode understand why he is doing this. His wife, Lucy, didn’t exactly discourage him from running, “but she didn’t encourage me either,” Goode says, adding that Lucy has at least agreed to “do the books” for his national fundraising, which has amounted to a political pittance — about $200,000, he says. His longtime Republican friend, Bill Stanley, who holds the state Senate seat Goode once occupied, curtly observes that “any vote for Virgil is a wasted vote for Obama.”

But Stanley has refused the pleas of party allies urging him to ask Goode to get out of the race. “I tell them it wouldn’t do any good — I know the man,” Stanley says. “I don’t know what is driving Virgil. But I know that he’s principled and that once he makes up his mind, that’s it.”

At sundown, Goode sits in a cafe to drink a juice and reflect on the state of his campaign. He seldom budges from his talk of winning, grinning while envisioning a scenario in which he could capture Virginia with 38 percent of the vote in a five-man race that includes Green Party nominee Jill Stein, a doctor, and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico.

Thirty-eight percent?

The grin stays. “Well, things would have to go right,” he allows. Goode is seeing other scenarios now. He suggests that, even if he were to lose, he would probably feel a sense of triumph if his campaign persuaded more people to crusade against the PACs and adopt his immigration stance.

As he gets up to leave, a passionate young admirer named Mike Troxel rushes up, calling, “Hey, Virgil.”

Troxel sounds like a Goode supporter-in-waiting until he says: “Virgil, I can’t publicly endorse anybody, being that I work with the tea party. But I feel there is no reason why we shouldn’t have you and all the other options on the ballot.”

Okay, so not a declared supporter, but a definite maybe, Goode says as he heads to the parking lot.

His declared new supporters on this day remain stuck at two as night falls. It is a lot of work for such a small harvest. But even two a day, two out of a hundred, 2 percent, is a number large enough to rattle Republican Party officials, who are pushing harder than ever to jettison Goode. He is opening his cluttered car in the dark, on a search for his missing campaign buttons. “If I’m doing so poorly, then why are they so worried?” he asks, awed by the mess he has created.