We traditionally call people running for president with no support in the polls "vanity candidates." The Duncan Hunter campaign for the Republican nomination, though, feels more like the antidote to vanity. For a Veterans Day parade through downtown Reno, the plan is to drive Hunter, mounted on the back of a white Corvette convertible, behind two children marching with a banner: DUNCAN HUNTER WINS TEXAS STRAW POLL, it reads, trumpeting one of the few pieces of good luck to come the campaign's way. It could be a glorious and heady moment. "I'm not gonna flip out," Hunter says, as he climbs on top of the Corvette, seemingly nervous about keeping his balance before the crowd. "We're having nothing but fun!" Then he sits there for an hour. The parade's organizers have assigned him a slot at the end of the march, putting him behind Dennis Kucinich supporters, people banging saucepans in memory of Molly Ivins, a hayride truck filled with senior citizens labeled MARTIANS FOR PEACE, and, worst of all, a troupe of five cavalry re-enactors on horseback. Hunter, a military equipment nut, enjoyed hanging out with the cavalrymen before the parade, but, once they set off, their horses begin pooping profusely along the route. As Hunter's convertible starts to roll, it streaks piles of hot yellow horse dung under its wheels. "Eeewie!" a child screams.
Trotting alongside the convertible, I think: He's gonna flip out. He is, after all, the most hard-ass conservative in the race, and shunting a Vietnam veteran who's running for president behind a truckload of hippies only to get crap smeared on his Corvette does not epitomize the respect for country that movement conservatism esteems. But, amazingly, Hunter doesn't utter a word of complaint. As his stinking ride motors past a seedy strip of sex shops and casinos, Hunter--who wants to ban abortions even in cases of rape--simply smiles beatifically and says to his driver, "What a piece of Americana!"
I realize what anybody who's spent more than a minute with Hunter knows: He is as affable as a sitcom grandpa. It's a strange temperament for a candidate who's staked his run on churlish policies, like building a double fence across the entire Mexican border ("we trap them in between the two fences") and limiting trade with China so it stops using our dollars to build a dark army. But his response to every event on the trail ranges along a spectrum from "This is neat" to "I'll be darned." Nothing seems to make him suffer--not even when a handler forgets to do publicity for a stop and only three gloomy-eyed geriatrics show up.
A friend of Hunter once described him as "Pat Buchanan with a smile." This sounds encouraging. Wasn't part of the problem with Buchanan his peevish temper? But, instead of improving on Buchanan's run, Hunter has struggled just to break into the fringe. He has raised half as much money as Tom Tancredo and netted half the major-paper mentions of Dennis Kucinich over the past year. Apparently, becoming a successful marginal presidential candidate is harder than it looks.
Hunter's resume doesn't seem like it belongs to a quixotic candidate. After 22 years in the House, in 2003, Hunter ascended to the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee. Somebody more conventional might have used the position to build a power base. But Hunter ran his committee a little differently. He liked to "explore odd issues that were kind of personal passions of his," explains a Democratic aide. To flip open a Hunter-drafted defense authorization bill was a little like opening an amateur inventor's bedroom closet. Out of it tumbled border fences made of mobile airplane runways and gun trucks prototyped from a Vietnam-era model discovered in a transportation museum. Staffers from both parties on the House and Senate Armed Services committees called them "Hunter Specials." One legendary special aimed to turn a California national park into a hunting reserve for veterans. "He was a big champion of defense on a philosophical level," says a former Republican aide on the Senate committee. "But we just got tired of dealing with the Hunter Specials." The congressman took a particular interest in fighting IEDs and even promoted a Kevlar poncho to protect infantrymen. In response, a staff officer created a picture of Hunter wearing the poncho and labeled it "SpongeBob HunterPants."
Today, Hunter still hasn't given up on solving the IED problem. Touring a gold mine in Carlin, Nevada, we inspect its fleet of 260-ton ore haulers, which resemble huge dump trucks. The gears inside Hunter's head turn. "I think they might be good IED protectors," he says, rapping on a tire, which is twice as tall as he is and alone costs over $30,000, half as much as a Humvee. "They would be really safe in Iraq."
Hunter lives for these whimsical, but-it-just-might-work dreams. Running for president was one. "It's been fairly well documented by historians that this is the most open race in more than sixty years," he explains. But Hunter is not only too fringe to be mainstream; with his mild manner and good cheer, he is also too mainstream to be fringe.
This year's GOP candidates seem to possess peculiarly mismatched combinations of traits. Judging from his ideas, Hunter is the guy you'd expect to shout, "We ought to double Guantanamo!" Instead, that line, ludicrously, flew out of the mouth of Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, most of Hunter's Gitmo material can be found in a YouTube clip in which he stands rigidly behind a podium, his black suit coat bunched up a little around his neck, holding a plate of food. It illustrates the gourmet treatment we allegedly give detainees. "This is what Osama bin Laden's bodyguards will eat several times, uh, a cycle, several times a week," he intones. In this exercise--a potentially hilarious one, perfectly designed for hamming it up for the red-meat crowd--Hunter exhibits all the ease and passion of a sex-ed teacher showing a classroom of contemptuous high-school students a model replica of the pelvis. "Uh, this is, uh--is, uh--lemon chicken," he struggles on, peering down at the three yellow mounds on the plate a little fearfully, as though they might have grown since he last looked.
In the territory on the fringes of presidential campaigns, the currency with which you buy status is outrage. Hunter's amiability may, one day, win him the kingdom of heaven, but in this kingdom he is a very poor man. I think he knows it, behind all that optimism. When a sympathetic minister in a small town along the trail asks him, "Where are you in the standings? How hard do I need to pray?" he grasps the holy man's shoulder somberly and says, "Really, really hard."
At a town hall meeting in Reno, Hunter's policy profile attracts several heavily made-up women upset about Mexican immigration. They're mad as hell. But Hunter never yells, and his detailed discussion of an intercountry highway supposedly proposed after NAFTA only serves to confuse them. "I don't understand. NAFTA--you would build a highway in between our country and theirs?" one of the women shouts.
After the meeting concludes, the women approach Hunter, but he has been accosted by a millennial ranter named Everett Triplett. "The Bible says the Beast has the foot of a bear and the head of a dragon--that's Russia and China, " Triplett is saying urgently. "The Chinese Army is an army bred to fulfill His scriptures." These are Hunter's ideas, but taken to the point of lunacy. Hunter backs away. Instead of following him, the women stay to listen to Triplett, whose rising voice--he has begun to sing "We Are the Champions"--and freaked-out gaze transfixes them. It turns out Pat Buchanan doesn't work with a smile.
Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic.