ST. LOUIS - Blake Ashby seems just a bit anxious. "I have nothing but respect for the president," he declares in his standard opening line. He follows it up by announcing, with all due respect, that he's running for George W. Bush's job.
The respect is important because Ashby, a 39-year-old Missouri entrepreneur, has been a committed navy-suit-and-red-tie Republican since he first studied GOP values during a civics class his sophomore year in high school. He wouldn't want voters to think he's down on the president.
He just happens to believe he could do a better job.
And he's willing to put his money on the line to try to prove it.
Ashby is one of 13 Republicans challenging Bush in New Hampshire's primary Jan. 27, the first balloting of the presidential election season.
The other candidates include Bill Wyatt, who owns a T-shirt store in Los Angeles; John Donald Rigazio, who recently switched parties in a rage after the Democrats kept him off their ballot; and Millie Howard, who avoids the nuisance of updating her Web site for each of her campaigns by titling the introduction "Millie Howard for President USA 1992 and Beyond."
The field, in short, sounds an awful lot like the crowd that mesmerized - or mortified - Californians in their recent gubernatorial recall election.
Why are they running? "Some of it is just to be able to say you ran for president. Some of it is vanity. Some is mental instability," said Andy Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Some, too, is admirable dedication to a lonely cause.
Howard wants to abolish the IRS. Rigazio aims to pull the United States out of the World Trade Organization. Wyatt has built his campaign around the all-capital-letters rallying cry "NO NEW WARS!" Each cared enough to pay a $1,000 filing fee in the hopes of using their candidacies to call attention to their agendas.
Few of the candidates - Wyatt is a notable exception - express anger at Bush or his policies. Don't expect a lot of mud-slinging from these guys; the race as they see it is all about them, not the man they'd like to replace.
"There are a lot of reporters running around the state, so maybe [these candidates] get more attention here than they would anywhere else," said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth University.
The urge to run seems timeless and somehow above the political fray, Fowler said. No matter who is in the White House - or who leads the opposition - at least a dozen fringe candidates from each party clog the New Hampshire ballot every four years. None gets more than 100 or so votes - "and that would be a generous estimate," Fowler said.
Bush, who expects to build a re-election campaign fund of $200 million, has not acknowledged his 13 challengers. His campaign declined to comment.
Local GOP officials for the most part act as if the president were running unopposed; some states have even canceled their Republican primaries to save money.
"It's like being invisible," Wyatt complained. "There are not going to be any forums in which George Bush even recognizes that anyone else is running."
Despite that embittering fact, Wyatt - a 43-year-old father of three - plans to spend about $20,000 on his anti-war candidacy. Asked what his wife thought of his plan, he laughed, saying, "Let's just say I like her honesty. She thinks it's stupid." He has given away hundreds of free T-shirts and miniature Wyatt-for-president lawn signs. He has flown across the country to camp out in front of mainstream campaign events, introducing himself to anyone who will listen.
"I never served in the military, but I have run for office a lot and have stood up for a lot of causes. And to me, that's serving the country, too," he said.
Acknowledging that he's "not 100 percent up on most issues," Wyatt has invited voters to write him at www.billwyatt.org with suggestions on how to run the country.
From his home base in St. Louis, Ashby also is counting on momentum as he tries to distinguish himself from his opponents - a couple of whom, he suggests, are only "looking for dates."
His campaign is more organized than most; he has two press secretaries and a team of Web gurus helping him get his message out at www.ashby2004.com. He won't say how much money he's willing to commit, but he plans to spend three weeks shaking hands with voters in New Hampshire and aims to get his name on the ballot in more than a dozen other states. He even hints that his budget might allow TV ads.
Ashby says he's running because the spiking deficits and "bloated budgets" of the Bush administration outrage him. He says he can't believe that a Republican president would support huge new entitlements such as expanded farm subsidies and a prescription-drug benefit for Medicare even as the national debt soars.
Ashby hopes to gain enough force as a protest candidate to start steering the GOP back toward what he calls its founding principles of "limited government and fiscal restraint."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.