Fringe Presidential Candidates Complain They Are Pushed Aside

Eugene McCarthy's upset of President Johnson in 1968 frequently cited as proof that an unknown can sometimes make big difference. US POLITICS

DEMOCRATIC presidential candidate Larry Agran arrives by car at a campaign event on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, quickly abandons his search for an umbrella, and dashes across the lonely parking lot in the rain.

It isn't always bright and sunny on the campaign path for president of the United States. But it's especially dreary for lesser-known candidates, like Mr. Agran, to compete against the five major Democratic hopefuls now campaigning in earnest before the Granite State's Feb. 18 primary.

Agran, former mayor of Irvine, Calif., has been campaigning hard ever since he set up headquarters here in the Granite State last fall and claims he's just as serious as any one of the "major" candidates. He is already on the primary ballot in 27 states.

But the media have primarily focused attention on the big-time candidates, including Democrats: Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, US Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, former US Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, and US Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa; and Republicans: President George Bush and political commentator Patrick Buchanan.

Thus, Agran and other serious minority candidates here seem to be fighting a losing battle as they struggle for party recognition, debating opportunities, and air time against their better-known Democratic counterparts.

"All I've asked for is the opportunity, on a relatively equal footing, to compete with the others, measure my ideas, my intellect, my approach to government against theirs, and let the people decide," Agran says.

Agran is not alone in his frustration. There are a total of 62 presidential candidates on the Granite State ballot, including 36 Democrats, 25 Republicans, and one Libertarian. Of that lot, there are probably eight to 12 serious Democratic candidates, says Agran.

But the few small-time, albeit serious, candidates here are ignored and lumped in with the so-called publicity-seeking "fringe" candidates.

The high number of candidates may be due to the ease with which one can get on the primary ballot. Basically, all a candidate needs is $1,000.

"The field is wide open," says William Sneider, a visiting professor of American politics at Boston College. "Most of the people who are running are not running seriously and think: 'Gee, for $1,000 I can tell my children I ran for president.' "

But Agran complains that serious minority candidates aren't being treated fairly. At one state's Democratic Party convention in November, Agran was allotted only five minutes to speak instead of the 20 minutes given the major candidates. When his five minutes were over, his microphone was unplugged and music was played to drown out his voice. Last month, he was not invited to speak at a New Hampshire health-care forum with the other major candidates. When Agran stood up and demanded to be heard, he and a nother minority candidate, Lenore Fulani, were eventually summoned to come forward and participate in the forum.

"If you have something to say and you're running for president, I think you should be heard," says Madelyn Chapman, press secretary for Ms. Fulani, a Democrat as well as chairwoman of the New Alliance Party. She is entering several state primaries.

But state Democratic officials here don't agree that all candidates should be allowed to speak at their forums.

"The thing that makes a candidate a significant candidate is that they establish a campaign strategy and tactics known to the voters and accepted by the voters," says Russell Verney, executive director of the state Democratic party. Name recognition "comes into it" as an issue, he says.

Other serious minority candidates in New Hampshire include former US Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who in the 1968 primary won 20 of New Hampshire's 24 delegates to the Democratic convention though losing in the popular vote to President Lyndon B. Johnson by 48 percent to 42 percent. Mr. Johnson subsequently decided not to seek reelection.

There is also former actor Tom Laughlin, star of the "Billy Jack" movies of the 1970s, who is campaigning vigorously in New Hampshire.

But some here say major candidates should be separated from those lesser-known types - including either serious minority candidates or publicity-seeking fringe candidates.

Robert Craig, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, says that one year there was a fringe candidate who campaigned in an Indian costume. Another year, in the early 1970s, one offbeat candidate pulled a dead rat out of his pocket during the middle of a televised debate to make a point, Mr. Craig says.

Also on the ballot this year is Lyndon LaRouche, now serving a 15-year prison sentence for fraud and tax evasion.

"They [minority candidates] make it difficult for the voters to sort out who the real candidates are and what the real messages are," says State Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire. "I think we've got to say that we have to draw the line some place."

But according to Richard Winters, a government professor at Dartmouth College, minority candidates bring in new issues and concerns not touched on by their media-wary counterparts. "They both provide interesting input and a kind of check of the system ... that in principle is open to all," he says.

Consider candidate Agran, an attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School and was mayor of Irvine for six years. His "New American Security" plan would reduce US military spending in half and redirect those funds toward domestic needs such as providing adequate health care and education, preserving the environment, and finding jobs.

Not one of the major candidates has articulated this approach, he says.

"When you're on the ballot, it means citizens have a chance to vote for you," he says. "Well, if they're going to have the chance to vote for you, shouldn't they have the chance to hear you and hear what you have to say in televised debates and candidate forums?"

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