LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Most politicians would take it as a bad sign if they finished third in a re-election bid behind a former Ku Klux Klan leader and an opponent twice tried for racketeering.
Not former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer.
Two decades after finishing behind ex-Klansman David Duke and the oft-investigated Edwin Edwards in 1991, Roemer is trying to revive his political career with a quixotic run for president.
To do so he is spending $50,000 of his own money and campaigning seven days a week in New Hampshire at any forum that will have him — from assisted living communities for seniors, to phone banks for Republican state representatives.
In the latest national poll of Republican voters by Fox News, he registers at less than 1 percent. His constant presence in New Hampshire has yielded similar results.
On Tuesday, his 68th birthday, Roemer opened his national campaign headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire.
But he will not be on the podium October 11, when Republican candidates meet at Dartmouth College for a debate focused on ways to fix the ailing U.S. economy.
“I know it’s easy to laugh at it and say how are you going to do it?” Roemer told Reuters a few days ago. He spoke alone and unrecognized in a New Hampshire diner that had overflowed with locals when Republican front-runner Mitt Romney visited a month earlier.
“But I’ve got to try. I don’t move with an entourage, I don’t have private planes.”
Roemer is running on a single issue that has gotten almost no attention this election cycle: limiting money in politics. He limits campaign contributions to $100 and doesn’t take money from political action committees, should any be on offer.
He calls Congress a “circus where the clowns just rotate” and decries the fact that there is neither disclosure nor limits on the millions of dollars likely to be spent by shadowy political organizations known as Super PACS in the 2012 election.
Though Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry both denounce the influence of money in politics, Romney has raised millions of dollars from Wall Street while Perry is likely to do the same from the oil and gas industry.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is expected to raise as much as a billion dollars for his re-election campaign.
“Buddy takes a look at this and says ‘ultimately I’m going to speak truth to power and that’s the power of lobbying and special interest groups,’” said Dennis Stine, a Louisiana building supply magnate and former aide to Roemer now raising money for him, at $100 a crack.
“I think he realized that you become where you get your money.”
As a Louisiana politician, Roemer has had an up-close view of the corrupting effects of money in politics.
His father, Charles Roemer II, a top deputy to Edwards in the early 1980s, went to jail along with Carlos Marcello, then head of the New Orleans Mafia, for involvement in a bribery scheme involving state insurance contracts. The elder Roemer’s conviction was later overturned on a technicality.
An old political foe of Roemer’s, former U.S. Representative William Jefferson of New Orleans, is still in jail on bribery charges after an FBI raid in 2006 found $90,000 in cash in his freezer.
Edwards, who served four terms as governor between 1972 and 1996, was released from federal prison this year after serving out a sentence on charges related to bribery in casino licensing.
Roemer has campaigned and won as a good-government reformer before, which is why, six years after a triple-bypass and burdened with an insulin pump, he has left his family and the presidency of a mid-sized bank behind in Louisiana to spend the fall in New Hampshire.
Roemer grew up practicing speeches in his parents’ cotton fields near Bossier in northern Louisiana and went to Harvard at 16. He later received an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Originally a southern-style Democrat who in his four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives often sided with Ronald Reagan, Roemer was a little-known congressman when he ran against Edwards and a host of others for governor in 1987.
Edwards, a liberal populist in the mold of Huey Long, had already been damaged by a number of allegations of corruption, excessive gambling and womanizing.
Still, he retained a firm grip on the state that intimidated many rivals. Not Roemer, whose cry for Louisiana “to slay the dragon” of Edwards’ political machine vaulted him to the governor’s mansion.
His popularity quickly evaporated, however. Ron Gomez, a former Roemer ally in the legislature, says Roemer didn’t return legislators’ phone calls and refused to compromise on even small matters to win broad support.
Roemer’s effort to reform the state’s archaic method of tax collection failed so miserably that Duke and the state’s black caucus allied to campaign against the initiative.
An effort to promote positive thinking by requiring aides to wear rubber bands on their wrists and snap themselves when they had negative thoughts, was widely mocked.
On the eve of his re-election campaign, Roemer switched parties and became a Republican.
“I told him, you’ve already pissed off most of the Democratic Party and most of the teachers and sheriffs in the state, so you might as well,” Gomez recalled. “He just didn’t like the game of politics.”
In Louisiana’s “jungle primary,” where candidates of all parties compete in a first round of voting ahead of a two-person run-off, Roemer won just 27 percent of the vote, behind Edwards and Duke. Edwards went on to beat Duke in a run-off that featured bumper stickers that read “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
Observers of Louisiana politics say Roemer’s attempted comeback may represent a dream deferred for a man once considered a rising star in Southern politics. For his part, Roemer says he’ll be satisfied just to get campaign financing back in the national discussion.
“This is a country numb from abuse,” he said. “It is deadened to it. I am trying to stick a pin in it.”
Reporting by Jason McLure; Editing by Ros Krasny and Jerry Norton