Cover Story

Hunting for votes

Campaign 2008 | Long-shot campaigns aren't new to Duncan Hunter, and now the California Republican hopes a platform of closed borders and restricted trade will beat the odds and lift him to the White House

Issue: "Barrier riffs," Feb. 10, 2007

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.- U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is a presidential candidate with "hattitude." That's according to the purple writing on the bright red cap he sported two days after launching his bid for the presidency in a South Carolina hotel filled with men in dark suits. On this breezy morning, Hunter mingled with a very different crowd: some 500 women, mostly 50 and over, in flamboyant purple outfits and outrageous red hats.

Hunter's visit to the regional convention of the Red Hat Society at the Myrtle Beach Hilton wasn't the first stop on his third official day of campaigning for the presidency, but it was the most telling: In a presidential race that promises to be the most expensive in history, one of the least-known candidates in the field needs to hunt for votes wherever he can find them.

Hunting for votes is something the 14-term congressman from San Diego knows about. Hunter, 58, first ran for Congress in 1980 as a young attorney with a storefront law office when his district was only 29 percent Republican. Ronald Reagan was running for the presidency that year, and Hunter's father thought his son could ride the conservative wave. "So we went out in the rain and got our signatures," Hunter told WORLD. "And we won a real underdog race."

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Twenty-six years later, Hunter is one of the chief underdogs in the race for the White House: A recent CNN poll found that only 1 percent of likely Republican voters favored the congressman for the presidency.

Despite the odds, Hunter acts like a man who is serious: He was one of the first candidates to announce his intentions, and he unexpectedly announced that next year he will give up the congressional seat he's held more than a quarter-century to focus on his run for the White House.

The congressman shrugs off questions about his slim chances, saying his platform is unique enough to gain traction. During a weekend visit to New Hampshire in early January, he told The Manchester Union Leader: "I think I'll just tell people what I stand for and we'll see if we can't attract a crowd."

At a Saturday breakfast of local Republicans in Myrtle Beach, Lois Eargle arrived early to escort Hunter to his next crowd: The Red Hat Society is a club for women over 50 who meet for tea wearing purple outfits and red hats to celebrate growing old with spunk. Standing near a cluster of palm trees, Eargle was easy to spot in a sharp purple suit and sleek matching pumps, red scarf, red lipstick, red nails, and red jewelry.

After greeting a handful of locals outside, Hunter followed Eargle to her shiny red Cadillac, where her wide-brimmed, red hat sat perched on the back seat. On the drive south, Eargle made polite small talk in a refined Southern accent, but soon grew direct: "Now what makes you think you can beat John McCain?"

It's a good question. Hunter, who supported Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2000 campaign, doesn't hesitate: "Because I've got the right position on border security. . . . It sets me apart from the other candidates."

Hunter is famous in his district for his strict positions on border control and immigration. The congressman led efforts to build the 14-mile border wall along the San Diego-Tijuana border, and he has sponsored legislation to extend the wall another 700 miles into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The borders are porous, he says, and vulnerable to criminals and terrorists: "The national security issue is even more important than the immigration issue."

But the immigration issue isn't going away, and while some Republican presidential candidates-like McCain-support a guest-worker program that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, Hunter contends "it doesn't make sense" to discuss such programs before the borders are secure. He says perceived benefits could create a rush to cross illegally: "We're like a house that doesn't have any sides. . . . Let's put up walls before we talk about how to adjust the front door."

As for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the "house," the congressman refused to offer a plan, except to say: "I think we should follow current law. . . . We deport thousands of people a month right now."

Hunter introduced constitutionally questionable legislation this month to pardon two Texas border patrol agents convicted of shooting a fleeing man in the back while on duty. The wounded man was later identified as Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, a drug smuggler attempting to cross the border illegally with 700 pounds of marijuana. Convicted by a federal court in El Paso, agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean reported to prison this month to serve 11- and 12-year sentences.

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