Bargain basement ballot?

CONCORD, N.H. — Out of the 44 presidential candidates running in the New Hampshire primary, only one prances around with a Wonder Woman cape on the campaign trail.

That heroic distinction belongs to Vermin Supreme, a career political heckler and satirist from Rockport, Mass., who personifies a blend of Occupy Wall Street and “Project Runway.” While his message oscillates between the absurd (federal funding for time travel research) and the serious (organ donation), it is his outlandish costumes that make the most lasting impression.

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Regardless of whether your motivation is to win the White House, promote a book or impress your descendants when they research the family tree six generations from now, virtually anyone with $1,000 can run for president in New Hampshire. The only caveats are the constitutional requirements of being at least age 35 and a natural-born U.S. citizen and having lived in the United States for seven consecutive years.

Such openness has resulted in figures like the shaggy-bearded Supreme, whose profile usually stands about two feet above the media scrum, thanks to a stretchy rubber boot he wears like a Roman helmet. Sometimes it’s replaced with a floppy Uncle Sam hat and matching clown nose. He’s also partial to a wild animal-print sport coat, multiple patriotic neckties choking him like a noose, and a foam Incredible Hulk fist affixed to his groin.

The most common non-fashion-

related question he gets asked: Is that really your name?

It’s on his driver’s license. Supreme legally changed it years ago to cement his enigmatic status. On the Democratic ballot, where he is one of 13 challengers to President Obama, the personal branding tactic will generate a steady trickle of media attention. A vote for Supreme provides a safe middle-finger option for disgruntled Democrats who wouldn’t dream of abandoning the party in November.

Craig “Tax Freeze” Freis, of Lake Elsmore, Calif., pulled the same stunt. His court- changed middle name will appear on the Jan. 10 ballot despite opposition from New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who cited a state election law prohibiting a nickname that “constitutes a slogan or otherwise associates the candidate with a cause or issue, that has an offensive or profane meaning or that creates a perception of a professional or vocational affiliation, such as ‘Doc’ or ‘Coach.’ ” The secretary of state was overruled 4-1 by the state Ballot Law Commission.

Although he doesn’t want to see the New Hampshire ballot resemble a professional wrestling card, Gardner does subscribe to a philosophy of “the more, the merrier” for the primary. If you include the recently suspended campaign of Herman Cain, there are also 30 Republicans itching for a shot at the nomination.

Election law expert Richard Winger, who tracks candidate requirements in all 50 states at Ballot-Access.org, regards New Hampshire as “tied for the second easiest ballot access rule in the country.” Missouri also charges $1,000, he notes, but Arizona has no filing fee whatsoever. 

Compare those rates with South Carolina, which demands a $35,000 entry fee into the 2012 Republican race to cover the cost of the polls. Sounding a bit like ATM fees gone extreme, the state requires political parties to pay a $20,000 “filing fee” for each candidate, but allows them to set a “certification fee” at any limit. In Florida and Georgia, the choice of eligible candidates is determined at the whim of party leaders. Other states require various fees and/or petition signatures.

“The New Hampshire primary helps the little guy who has something to say,” says Gardner, who has served with both Democratic and Republican governors since 1976. “Unlike California, Texas or Florida, we keep the dream alive that anyone’s son or daughter can become president.

“Jimmy Carter was considered a lesser-known candidate when he started,” he says. “Yes, he was the governor of Georgia, but no one outside of the South really knew who he was. Sort of like Buddy Roemer, except that Buddy has much more experience.”

Roemer, the ex-governor of Louisiana who has the unpleasant legacy of failing to defeat Klansman David Duke in 1991, relocated to a rented apartment in Manchester, N.H., in July for the campaign. He often boasts of being the only candidate in the presidential race who’s been both a governor and a congressman (1981-1988), but he’s been watching the debates from home — as has fellow GOP candidate former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

“New Hampshire’s easy ballot access is important, but the world has changed,” Roemer says. “The cost of running has never been higher, and the big media outlets really decide who the players are. You now have to be famous to run for president. For New Hampshire to really practice what it preaches, it has to encourage more open debates.”

The candidate says he’s counting on heavy local support for inclusion in two down-to-the-wire debates in New Hampshire sponsored by ABC News/WMUR and NBC News/Facebook just before the Jan. 10 primary. “We’ve seen every Republican front-runner come and go. Someday it will reach me,” he says.

But even if Roemer’s premonition comes true, he would not be able to continue his momentum in South Carolina, where he scoffed at the $35,000 cover charge (while he limits campaign donations to $100); or in Florida, where the Republican Party chairman opted not to list him on the ballot.

“I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but maybe I should,” he says.

The state of New Hampshire cannot dictate the terms of the ABC or NBC debates, but it is providing a temporary spotlight for those who are neglected. Encouraged by the secretary of state’s office, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College is hosting a “Lesser-Known Presidential Candidates Debate” on Dec. 19. Covered live by C-SPAN, the event will likely be the only opportunity for national press coverage for most of the participants.

Among those planning to attend is UPS cargo pilot Christopher Hill, a veteran Air Force fighter pilot who served in Desert Storm, who believes that combat training is the best preparation for the stresses of being president. 

Hill, who grew up in New Hampshire but is now based in Kentucky, sees the open participation model of the Iowa caucuses as more desirable than his home state’s fee-based system. In Iowa, anyone can declare him- or herself a candidate, and they immediately sink or swim based on popular support.

The Tea Party activist favors one standardized national election conducted for 48 hours, with the federal government fully covering the costs of voting.

“Mitt Romney can write South Carolina a check for $35,000 like you, or I would write out a $35 check,” Hill says. “The system doesn’t allow people like me to run beyond New Hampshire.”