Fred Karger looks like a presidential candidate. He sounds like a presidential candidate. Hell, he is a presidential candidate — the only (openly) gay one currently in the running, who's now polling neck-and-neck with Newt Gingrich for the Republican presidential nomination.
His campaign has gained unexpected momentum in the months since he received a brief, friendly writeup in the New York Times, due perhaps to his habit of not saying hateful and/or crazy things on the stump. So why is Fox News refusing to let him attend the presidential debate on Thursday?
It's the polls, says Fox veep Michael Clemente. According to the rules of the debate, a candidate must record an average of 1% in five different polls to qualify for inclusion. Which Karger is — according to some polls, he's got a whopping 2% of the vote, which puts him about level with Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman. The problem is that some of those polls were conducted online. They were good, reliable polls — the Harris Interactive poll, which has on occasion proven the most accurate in the world, has Karger beating T-Paw and Huntsman. Doesn't matter, says Fox. It's online. Karger can't debate.
I spoke with Karger last night, and he sounded agitated. This is not his usual state. Previously, I'd met him at a bar — one full of gay liberal union members — and despite the bluish glow of his surroundings, Karger was perfectly at ease. Not in that greasy, back-slapping political way that makes sane people feel dirty. He was just a friendly, extroverted dude in a suit and hair gel who wanted to make friends and talk shop. But Fox's behavior has gotten to him.
And not only because it's unfair. Fox didn't come up with the no-online-polls rule until after Karger had fulfilled the other requirements. As he sees it, the Grand Old Party needs him at this debate. "I want to be in this debate because my centrist views aren't represented in that hall," he says. "The other candidates are very far to the right. The American people aren't."
Of course, just about every underdog/everyman candidate thinks he represents a great, marginalized majority of the American public. But with Karger, it might actually be true. Consider this appealing package: Karger is an old colleague of Ronald Reagan's. He worked as a political consultant for the man from 1980 through his reelection, and he's toiled ever since in the private sector. He believes in entrepreneurship, small government, blah blah etc., but he's no anarcho-capitalist. "Of course the government can do good," he told me at the bar, when I mentioned the recent, alarming takeover of the secular wing of the Republican party by doctrinaire libertarians. On the phone, he admitted to having raised money for Hillary Clinton in 2008. "I'm the one Republican candidate who has actually voted for Democrats. I don't just reach across the aisle. Not even Obama can say that." Karger calls himself "trans-partisan."
Karger's all for the retention of effective government programs, charter schools, abortion rights, and the legalization of same-sex marriage. And he's for civility. I asked Karger the question I always ask Republicans — "What's worst about President Obama? That he's a closet Muslim or that he's a closet Stalinist?" — and Karger laughed.
"My biggest overall beef with President Obama is a lack of leadership," he said. "He just caves too easily. You know, on that campaign, he did the most magnificent job. But he's just not a leader … If you're the president, you need to be strong. He was elected for a reason, but when he's tried to do the things he was elected to do, he's just been steam-rollered again and again."
To clarify: That was a Republican politician complaining that President Obama hasn't been hard enough on Republicans.
It's a refreshing stance, the kind of thing you might expect to hear from someone who, say, acknowledges that Americans with differing political views are still Americans, and may occasionally get some things right. It also all but guarantees that, even if he should attain tens of millions in campaign funds and the ear of a sympathetic media, Karger will be slaughtered in the primaries.
Karger disagrees, naturally. He looks at the 46% of Republicans whose favorite Republican is, according to the aforementioned Harris poll, "None of The Above," and wonders if those could be his people, if only they knew he existed.
Some of them will know, if only Karger can get to the debate. And he may. There's still time for Fox to change its mind. A petition urging them to do so may be found here. Even folks disinclined to help Republicans may want to take a moment to sign the thing, if only on the off-chance of seeing Karger go after Michele Bachmann.
Over the phone, the last question I asked Karger was whether he intended to use the debate to take on the Family Values crowd, or if he'd just as soon dodge them, seeing as Republicans are notoriously opposed to having gay stuff shoved, ahem, "down their throats."
"Oh, no," said Karger. "That's a big motivation for me." He mentioned the three candidates who've signed the National Organization for Marriage's execrable "marriage pledge" — Michelle Bachman, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum — and said he couldn't wait to go toe-to-toe. "Let them start attacking my community. They'll have Fred Karger to deal with." He paused. "Look, what they need to understand, what needs to be said, is that gay people aren't an election issue. They're just not. They're human beings. There's a difference."
That's where we left off. Fred Karger was in traffic in SoCal, en route to a barber. He wants to be freshly groomed for the debate.
[Image via Getty]