At a beachside pier here, a man in a plaid shirt and khakis steps out of a 1974 Dodge Xplorer van. With his wife and two kids, he hangs a vinyl banner over the side window using duct tape and paper clips. As passersby ogle its message - "Vote Joe in 2000" - the foursome hands out a single-page flyer.
"I'm a different kind of candidate, trying to create a different kind of government," says Joe Schriner to one woman. "If you like what you read here, tell your friends and neighbors."
Dubbed the "Average Joe," the Ohioan has been traversing the US in this small motor home for eight months, espousing a vision of a simpler, more community-oriented America.
"I'm a concerned parent from the Midwest who thinks things have really gone nuts in this country, from the breakup of the nuclear family, to drugs, to violence, to uncensored sex [in the media]," he says.
Mr. Schriner does not like to call himself an alternative candidate, because he says his message is mainstream, not fringe. But for the purposes of American politics, he - and about 190 other presidential candidates now registered with the Federal Election Commission - are labeled just that by mainstream analysts.
But however small their statistical impact, such candidates have important symbolic roles for the democratic process, experts say. Historically, they have often played a vital role in moving key voter issues from the shadows into the spotlight.
"Whether they amuse, enlighten, or irritate, these candidates nevertheless are an important reminder that America's is an open political system in which anyone can serve from top to bottom," says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College in California. "They are a useful outlet for splinter groups to express themselves and organize, and they are watched by the more astute major candidates as straws in the wind for their own future policy development."
Supplementing the national political debate is not Schriner's goal, however. He intends to be president.
"Only a very small part of the American populace is interested in the current presidential election. The rest are apathetic because they don't feel they can impact a system already umbilically tied to corporate America," he says. "We think that when our message catches on, a whole new cadre of people will be drawn in and this can take hold. This has already happened on a regional basis. We think it can happen nationally."
To be registered as an official candidate, aspirants must be over 35, American-born, declare their candidacy publicly, and receive more than $5,000 in donations.
A former journalist and substance-abuse counselor, Schriner has generated a small following that has kept his candidacy going week to week with donations totaling $10,000. Besides money, many have donated time - including one North Carolina man who spent 70 hours designing Schriner's campaign Web site for free (www.voteforjoe.com).
"You read down this list of campaign ideas and you can't help but want to support them," says a woman outside a coffee shop here, where Schriner hands out leaflets.
Schriner left his jobs behind in 1990 to research projects in which average citizens united to address local issues. During eight years, he filled 40 notebooks with ideas.
In Oldenburg, Ind., he chronicled how a group of nuns devised a way to keep the family farm alive. In Taos, N.M., citizens formed an environmentally conscious community, using solar tools and organic agriculture. And on the South Side of Chicago, ministers built a transitional-living facility to get people out of gang war zones.
If such people were held up as models, and "it took hold, big government would go away altogether," says Schriner, a Republican. He sees this as a return to an America in which neighbor helped neighbor, and a way to bridge gaps among groups who fear one another because they never interact.
Schriner has an extensive platform, ranging from providing reparations to native Americans, to nuclear disarmament, education reform, and rebuilding inner cities. He also wants to tap into the voluntary-simplicity movement, in which thousands of Americans have cut back on conspicuous consumption to regain a sense of balance and proportion.
"The big indicator for American prosperity has always been gross national product. We think that has come at the expense of a 60 percent divorce rate, the nuclear family being blown apart, and youth searching for a way out of meaninglessness," he says.
If such ideas draw interest, can they also draw votes?
"I must say, I do wonder that if I vote for someone like this, am I throwing my vote away?" asks the woman outside the coffee shop.
But Schriner says no, and some analysts agree. "In huge states like California, the back roads are filling up with voters who have big-time concerns just like the large metro areas where most political candidates campaign," says Heslop.
"The phenomenon of a figure like Schriner is that he can tap into a set of feelings that are both deep and widespread in ways that normal candidates can't," he adds. "At some point, the front-rank candidates might wish they had listened to the kind of population that Schriner is listening to."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society