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A longshot candidate stakes his claim

Much of what you need to know about Michael A. Peroutka's run for president you can see in a glance around his living room.

Take the stack of things on his coffee table. It consists of campaign notes stuffed into a manila folder, a copy of former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke's book Against All Enemies, and a Bible. On the bookcase, there's a bust of Patrick Henry, the revolutionary and anti-federalist Virginian who feared the government was too centralized. A painting of Robert E. Lee hangs above tiny Confederate flags on the mantle.

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"Many people are disillusioned with [President] Bush for a number of reasons," Peroutka says after welcoming a visitor into his home. "People who don't know my name or know about the party are finding us and seeking us out -- they're looking for an alternative."

Just how many might choose that alternative -- the nationally active Constitution Party and its strict pro-life, anti-immigration, Constitution-driven platform -- is not clear. Political experts say the number, as in past elections, could be negligible, despite a party enrollment of some 340,000. But there are whispers, at least, that this election year, Peroutka's party just might be for Republicans what Ralph Nader and the Green Party were for the Democrats in 2000: a spoiler, drawing disillusioned conservatives away from President Bush.

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And so Peroutka -- a Pasadena attorney who has never run for public office before and has been involved in politics for only a few years -- now finds himself engaged in an unlikely run for the White House, one that will be formally kicked off this week at the Constitution Party nominating convention in Valley Forge, Pa.

It's a big step for a man whose only previous public exposure has included a messy legal battle with his stepdaughters and their social worker, and complaints about his overly generous state campaign contributions.

While he's far from a household name, Peroutka has made appearances on Fox News and done speaking engagements from New Hampshire to Missouri to Las Vegas. And despite the odds against his success, Peroutka is pursuing the presidency with a mixture of confidence and aw-shucks humility that seems to border on naivete.

"It's in God's hands now," he says.

A warm and engaging man, Peroutka, 53, readily quotes John Quincy Adams, the Constitution and the Bible when he speaks. His home in the upscale Brittingham development has a beautiful backyard garden; in the street out front, his 13-year-old son whizzes around on in-line skates. His wife, Diane, provides refreshments to a guest, then sits by silently as her husband speaks.

"People need to understand what an American view of law and government is," he says. "We've gotten away from what an American view is -- that there is a creator God, that rights come from God, not the government. And the purpose of government, which is to protect, defend and secure those God-given rights."

Not their first choice

Peroutka wasn't the Pennsylvania-based Constitution Party's first choice as its candidate. That honor was meant for ousted Alabama judge Roy Moore, famous for his passionate defense of a Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse. But with Moore tied up in legal appeals, the party turned to Peroutka, one of its biggest fund-raisers.

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"We believe that Mr. Peroutka is a qualified individual and represents the type of thing we believe in and want to see promoted through him," said national party chairman Jim Clymer.

Peroutka is expected to appear on the ballot in more than 40 states this fall, just as Constitution Party candidate Howard Phillips did in 2000. But to make any impact, he'll have to fare better than Phillips, who failed to garner even one-half of a percent of the popular vote nationally. Phillips received sparse support from Maryland voters in his three presidential bids: 22 in 1992, 3,402 in 1996, and 919 votes in 2000.

Peroutka has received the support of the new Alaskan Independence Party, which has 17,000 members; he also received 23,900 votes in this year's California Republican presidential primary -- more than one-time Democratic challenger Carol Mosley Braun (21,500) but less than Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Carmejo (29,900).

James Gimpel, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, expects the Constitution Party's impact on the 2004 election to be minimal.

"I don't think the level of dissatisfaction is strong enough with the Republican Party to garner much support," he said. "The American political system doesn't reward third parties."

Constitution classes

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Peroutka, though, is not daunted by history.

The former altar boy and son of a janitorial supply salesman grew up in and around Baltimore County. After graduating from Loyola College and the University of Baltimore School of Law, he became an attorney and went to work for the federal government. He quit his job in legal affairs with the federal Department of Health, though, when he decided that social welfare programs, including Social Security and Medicare, were unconstitutional.

He joined his brother Stephen's law firm in Pasadena. At their Ritchie Highway office, the Peroutkas soon created the Institute on the Constitution, which offers seminars and information aimed at getting government back in line with the original aims of the Constitution. His hope was to groom others to carry forward that view.

One of Peroutka's first students in 2002 was Donald H. Dwyer, an aerospace engineer from Anne Arundel County who had no previous political experience. Dwyer has just completed his first year in the state legislature as a delegate from Anne Arundel.

Now, as a candidate himself, Peroutka is hoping lightning strikes twice.

Daughters estranged

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The endorsements shown in videos on his Web site (peroutka 2004.com) don't come from notable politicians but everyday people like pastors and suburban dads. His personal platform employs the slogan "Honor God, Defend the Family, Restore the Republic." That second element is giving him a taste of what real politics are like. His own family relationships were the subject of a lengthy story in the Baltimore City Paper this spring.

In 1992, Peroutka's wife, Diane, released custody of her two daughters from a previous marriage to the state, a move that seems at odds with the Constitution Party's tenet that the government play no role in a family's affairs. The eldest daughter, Dawn Hubbard, was transferred to the state on May 1, 1992 -- her 17th birthday.

The move came years after Dawn told a church group and her high school basketball coach that Peroutka had sexually abused her. She later recanted, attributing her memories to "false memory syndrome," even appearing on TV's Phil Donahue show to discuss the phenomenon with experts. By that time, though, the Peroutkas had disowned her. Her sister, Holly, meanwhile, maintained that Peroutka verbally and physically assaulted her. Both women remain estranged from the Peroutkas' new family.

Peroutka denies the abuse allegations, and says his daughters were out of control and his wife did what she had to do by turning over custody. That experience, he says, is the reason he now believes the state should stay out of a family's affairs.

"[My stepdaughters] had been stolen, brainwashed, taught to lie, to deceive, taught to be enemies of my wife and myself," said Peroutka. "This was part of my learning process and why I care about protecting the family, because my family was destroyed by the actions of the state.

Campaign contributions by Peroutka and his firm have also have landed him in hot water. Last fall, he and his law firm were both charged by political watchdog Common Cause with exceeding the state's limit of $10,000 in campaign contributions over a four-year period. Recipients of the funds returned enough of the money to bring his donations back below the legal limit, and no action was taken against him or the firm.

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Peroutka has donated almost $16,000 to the campaigns of state officials from varying political backgrounds, and also is one of the Constitution Party's largest benefactors, chipping in more than $80,000 in the past few years. His children are getting into the act, too: Elizabeth, 16, Patrick, 15, and Timothy, 13, have contributed $4,000 each to the campaign of Del. Nancy Jacobs, according to state campaign finance data.

Finances an obstacle

Political expert Gimpel said the Constitution Party's biggest obstacle is financing. The national party had just over $2,700 cash on hand at the time of its most recent report. Peroutka's own campaign fund reported having $28,000 cash on hand at the end of May. The candidate has lent his campaign $120,000.

That's all a far cry from President Bush's $200 million-plus purse.

"They can't advertise, can't travel. The media doesn't pay any attention. It's an uphill battle for these folks," Gimpel said.

"Candidly, we're never going to be able to compete with the major parties, but there is a lot of interest in his candidacy," Clymer counters. "The campaign is getting a lot of hits and inquiries on its Web site [constitution party.com], and so is the party. Money will follow the interest."

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Recently, Peroutka announced his choice for running mate: a Pensacola, Fla., Baptist pastor named Chuck Baldwin. The party's national convention, which begins Tuesday, should throw more support his way.

"It's a slow but steady process," says campaign manager and self-described "Recovering Republican" James Lofton.

"I'm not here to steal votes from anybody. I'm not here to make a point," Peroutka says. "I'm here to tell the truth, and if people care about American government, I think I'm really the only choice."


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