On the day that Mitt Romney announced his presidential candidacy at a chili cookout in New Hampshire, an audacious, offbeat, savvy, publicity-attracting would-be candidate was upstaging him mercilessly.
I write, of course, about Fred Karger.
Karger is the gay Jewish Republican who has never run for office, but spent 30 years working as an operative on the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George Deukmejian and many others.
Now, at age 61, he is tossing his Frisbee into the ring. He hands out the flying discs emblazoned with his slogan, "Fred Who?" when he knocks on doors in New Hampshire. He also hires a guy in a kilt to play bagpipes. Why pipes? They attract attention, he shrugs.
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While Romney and Sarah Palin elbowed one another for the attention in New Hampshire last week, Karger was sitting in a Sacramento television studio remotely taping a one-on-one interview with Sir David Frost, famous for having interviewed Richard Nixon.
To Frost's fundamental question about why he's running, Karger answered that he is trying to make clear to younger people who are homosexual that "you can do anything you want, even run for president."
"That was smashing," Frost said, very British, after their chat, set to air this weekend on Al-Jazeera, where Frost now plies his trade.
Karger infuses his campaign with healthy doses of self-deprecating humor and acknowledges he is "definitely a long shot" – although this field could include a rich pizza guy, a retread with a $500,000 bill at Tiffany, a governor who quit mid-term and a reality television show barker whose hair looks like unmowed fescue.
Karger had come to Sacramento for a fundraiser hosted by Republican stalwart Robert Naylor, a lawyer and lobbyist, and his wife, Linda Kasem. They held it in their downtown loft, decorated with elephant knickknacks, books by Caspar Weinberger, Haley Barbour and Milton Friedman, and a photo of Naylor with George W. Bush.
Co-hosts included Republican Roy Ashburn, the former state legislator from Bakersfield and a friend of Karger's since the 1982 Deukmejian campaign.
Karger was closeted back then. Ashburn, who was married then, came out of the closet last year, after his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol after leaving a gay bar in Sacramento.
Karger, meanwhile, retired from the Dolphin Group, the political consulting firm where he was a partner, and took an out-front volunteer role in the 2008 campaign to defeat Proposition 8, the measure to ban same-sex marriage.
Now, Ashburn and Karger both are working to restore what they see as the fundamental tenet of the GOP – liberty and individual freedom. Ashburn plans to fly to New Hampshire to campaign for his old friend.
"I'm not going to sightsee. I'm going to go door-to-door, cafe-to-cafe. We're going to do everything we can to shake it up," Ashburn said.
I wrote about Karger's transformation from a behind-the-scenes operative to an out-front, unabashed advocate for gay rights within his party. That was before he decided to run for president and directly challenge the GOP's dim view of gay rights.
He has had quite a year, getting attention in the Washington Post, Mother Jones, Des Moines Register, CBS and numerous talk shows. When he traveled to Israel last month, the Jerusalem Post featured him on its front page. Many of his old cronies are encouraging the excellent adventure.
"He gets it that this is a bit of a Don Quixote campaign," said Republican consultant Ray McNally, who had worked with Karger off and on for years. "These are issues that are important. Good for him. Go add some spice."
Who knows, maybe "Fred Who?" is having an impact.
Mike Huckabee incurred Karger's wrath by making anti-gay comments over the years. In April, as Huckabee was mulling over whether to run, Karger wrote a brutal commentary for the Guardian in Britain, homing in on Huckabee's decision as Arkansas governor to grant clemency to a man who later killed four police officers.
"Does the name Willie Horton ring a bell?" Karger wrote.
Karger knows a thing or two about Horton, the felon who raped a woman while on a prison furlough granted when Michael Dukakis was Massachusetts governor. In the 1988 presidential campaign, operative Karger organized Horton's victims into a powerful campaign weapon against Dukakis, helping George H.W. Bush to secure victory.
"I don't like self-righteous bullies," Karger wrote. "So, I will from time to time bring up the hypocrisy of those others who are considering running for president in 2012. So, Mike, if you are thinking of running for president, you might think again."
A month later, Huckabee decided to keep his day job as a Fox News commentator.
Karger is a blip in the polls, at least those that track him. Pundits dismiss him – at least those who do not know him and the sort of work he is capable of doing.
Karger's immediate goal is to get on the stage in one of the debates in New Hampshire. That seems reasonable, given the crop of candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination.
Against this group, perhaps Karger should replace the "Fred Who?" slogan with "Why not Fred?"POLITICS