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 Gov. 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 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 antiestablishment 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, is not accepting PAC money, and is arguing that super PACs are illegal.
That may also be one of the reasons that 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," Roemer said. "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 backup 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 would 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 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 businesspeople.
"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 fundraising. It affects your poll numbers. It even affects whether you get in other debates."
"That's powerful," a reporter/camerawoman from the Salem Community TV station said loud enough for others to hear.
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