Buddy Roemer's Overshadowed New Hampshire Retail Experiment

He's been stumping in the Granite State, but his inability to get any debate time has turned him into the cycle's invisible man.

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The campaign phones were silent.

Campaign volunteers were absent.

The only sound in the second-floor office suite in downtown Manchester was the hard Louisiana drawl of the Republican presidential candidate, as he paced from vacant room to vacant room, talking on a cell phone.

"It's a little hard running against the big boys when you don't have a lot of money," former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer was saying. "But I'm not giving up because it's an issue that at some point will take center stage."

The issue at hand was the corrupting influence of money in national politics -- and no one has been hitting that issue harder than Roemer on the campaign trail. Big corporations leverage huge campaign contributions to get politicians to shower the companies with trade, tax and spending benefits to the detriment of ordinary Americans, he says.

"We have five or six decent people running," said Roemer in Salem, N.H. "But they won't get the job done because they are slaves to money."

Driving to Salem, he'd pushed the issue: "Some politicians live for service. Other politicians make their living from service. There's a big difference. Newt to me is a classic. He makes his living off politics."

Roemer's anti-establishment views prompted him to become the only Republican candidate to embrace the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is limiting contributions to no more than $100 per donor, not accepting PAC money and arguing that Super PACs are illegal.

That may also be one of the reasons practically no one in New Hampshire or any other early voting state knows Roemer or his message, even though, as Roemer points out repeatedly, he is the only Republican candidate who served as governor and in Congress and has run successful businesses.

That, and the debates.

"I have no poll standing because nobody knows I'm running because I haven't been in any of the debates," said Roemer. "It's like a Catch-22."

Roemer hasn't given up hopes of getting invited to a debate and making a splash in New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary. (He is skipping Iowa.) But he's also already signaled a back-up plan. He will compete for the unity ticket nomination of Americans Elect, which is promising to field a third party candidate in 2012.

Sixteen years after he last appeared on a ballot, the 68-year-old Roemer thought he had a winning strategy for the Republican primaries. It would mirror his under-funded 1987 governor's race, when he rocketed from last to first in the campaign's final weeks, propelled by a throw-the-bums out crusade that won him a slew of newspaper endorsements and energized voters eager for dramatic change.

Roemer figured he knew how to update his appeal because he campaigned throughout New Hampshire four years ago for his close friend, Sen. John McCain.

Roemer thought he'd gradually build a following by moving to the state and appearing before any group that would have him. He would run against the system but stand out because he had never been part of it. He would attack even Republicans ("Bailout George," he calls President George W. Bush). He would catch everyone by surprise, just as he had done in Louisiana 24 years ago.

Instead, debates have crowded out retail campaigning in New Hampshire this cycle, foiling his strategy.

"Four years ago, there were three debates during the primaries," Roemer said, shaking his head in between bites of a BLT on wheat at a Manchester sandwich shop. "This is different, man."

Republicans have held 16 national debates this year, and Roemer has been invited to exactly none, either because he didn't register in the polls or hadn't raised enough money to meet the threshold for a credible national candidacy required by the debate sponsors.

"I would have had a different strategy if I had known eight months ago what I know now," he told three reporters in Salem, as he waited for the arrival of what would be a crowd of 10 business people.

"I would have made a case to get in the debates. I certainly thought I'd be invited to all the debates. Herman Cain had nothing but debates and a couple of PACs. Everything is debate-centered."

Roemer's voice rose with passion and indignation.

"It affects your credibility. It affects your fund-raising. It affects your poll numbers. It even affects whether you get in other debates."

Roemer paused.

"That's powerful," a reporter/camerawoman from the Salem Community TV station said loud enough for others to hear.

* * *

Charles Roemer III grew up on a cotton farm in north Louisiana and was nicknamed Buddy as a boy. He was his high school valedictorian and went to Harvard University at age 16. He stayed to graduate from Harvard Business School.

Roemer was an anti-spending four-term Democratic congressman in 1987 when he and two other congressmen challenged the state's catch-me-if-you-can Democratic governor, Edwin Edwards. Roemer broke with tradition by refusing to accept cash contributions.

He catapulted over the others with the same tough-talking, plain-spoken appeal that he is making today.

As governor, Roemer first got the legislature to end unlimited campaign contributions. At his bidding, it also raised teacher salaries, required teacher evaluations, plugged a massive budget deficit and toughened enforcement against the state's notorious oil and gas polluters.

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