As better-known candidates trod the landscape and crowd the airwaves pleading for votes in Michigan's Republican presidential primary, the first openly gay G.O.P. presidential hopeful is plotting a minor upset. Fred Karger hopes the state's unique primary rules will land him a mid-Michigan miracle and a handful of delegates to the G.O.P.'s national convention.
Fred Karger's name remains so obscure that his campaign slogan is "Fred Who?" The retired California businessman has had a lot of trouble getting to share a stage with the other Republicans running.
"You know, had I gotten into an earlier debate, things might be very different because there's this lack of cohesion around a certain candidate, so I'm still hopeful as the field narrows that I could get into a debate and then everything could change," he says.
Karger has filed complaints against Fox News for shutting him out of an early debate in Iowa and against the American Conservative Union for refusing him a spot at its annual convention.
As a pro-choice, openly gay Republican, Karger acknowledges he's not in the G.O.P. mainstream these days. In fact, he's not really appealing to Republicans to vote in the Republican primary. Any registered voter can cast a ballot in the G.O.P. contest.
"I am appealing, Number One, to Obama supporters," he says. "A little unethical, a little unprecedented strategy for a Republican, but, as a moderate centrist who is actually to the left of Obama on certain social issues like full equality, gay marriage, things like that, I am appealing to them and my message is, Obama is unopposed, literally unopposed - vote for Fred Karger, grab a Republican ballot, make some history."
Karger thinks Michigan's primary rules give him that opening to, as he says, make history. Michigan's primary is actually a bunch of smaller contests. Most of the state's 30 national convention delegates will be determined by winner-take-all congressional district primaries - three delegates per district.
"So my focus - and I don't think this has been done -- just is in this district."
The district is Michigan's 8th Congressional district in the center of the state, home to Michigan State University, where he's spent a lot of time.
"I'm running for president of the United States, an independent Republican on the February 28th ballot, so I hope you'll consider voting for me," Karger makes his pitch while doing a walk-through at a food court on the Michigan State campus, shaking hands, and passing out campaign souvenirs.
Samantha Wilson was intrigued enough to do a quick check of Karger's website on her smartphone before dashing over for a brief conversation.
"First thing I read was first openly gay Republican candidate and I thought, 'that's interesting,'" she says. Wilson is a Democrat but says, now that she's met him, a primary vote for Karger is a possibility.
Karger's low-budget campaign does include a TV ad, airing in a relatively affordable market. Ominous music accompanies a scream as the ad mentions Republicans running for president. It goes on: "Well, there's one candidate you just might like...."
"It's done in a very strategic way. We do things just - everything the big campaigns do, we just do it on a smaller scale. We've got the lawn signs, the bumper stickers," Karger says. Political campaigns used to be his business. His resume includes working on Republican presidential campaigns going back to Gerald Ford's in 1976. He supported Hillary Clinton four years ago, but could not bring himself to vote for Barack Obama in the general election. He cast his ballot for Ralph Nader.
Karger says he knows he's more than a long shot and acknowledges has strategy is unconventional. Other political professionals agree.
"I can't remember the last time I've seen this," says David Doyle, a campaign consultant who once served as the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. He says Karger is being vastly outspent by the other candidates and their super PACs in the one TV market where his ad is playing
"And, in this election, the overwhelming majority of voters in the primary are concerned about jobs and the economy, deficit spending, and taxes. Social issues are low on the list," Doyle says.
Win or lose in mid-Michigan, Karger plans to apply his Michigan strategy to other states that will dole out delegates by congressional district. He's on the ballot in half a dozen states and he's still trying to get on some more in hopes of picking up some delegates.
He says even just a few would help him get into future debates and maybe get him some attention at the Republican convention in Tampa this summer.