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."
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.
Federal prosecutors during a two-and-half-week trial said that Davila initially tried to surrender to the agents with empty hands but then continued to flee on foot. Compean fired 14 rounds at Davila and Ramos fired once, shooting him in the buttocks. The agents then cleaned up the scene and filed a false report, according to prosecutors, who said the agents didn't know Davila was a drug smuggler until after the incident.
The agents have denied the prosecutors' version of events and said they believed Davila was armed and aggressive. Hunter, who has reviewed court documents, believes the agents and says they should be freed: "Even if you believe the facts as presented by the prosecution, which I don't, these men still received longer sentences than some convicted murderers."
When asked if the agents' sentences should be reduced instead of thrown out, Hunter said an administrative punishment would have been more appropriate, and he says more than 70 lawmakers have signed onto his bill for a pardon. U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton maintains that the evidence pointed to the agents' guilt: "If they believed [Davila] was a threat, why did they abandon him? And if they truly believed the shooting was justified, why did they not report it?" Compean and Ramos are appealing the verdict while hoping for a pardon.
As Hunter talked about border security, Eargle navigated her long Cadillac into a small parking space at the Myrtle Beach Hilton Hotel, and Hunter carried her bulky pink bag inside. On the hotel's second floor, a dozen vendors sat behind long tables in a narrow corridor outside a large meeting room, selling scarves, shawls, sashes, pins, costume jewelry, T-shirts, and hats, all in red and purple.
Inside the convention, Hunter and his communications director were the only men in a room packed full of 500 chattering women in red hats of every variety: cowboy hats, visors, baseball caps, wide-brimmed hats with tall plumes of feathers, and others with huge bouquets of flowers. Easing his way through the tight room, Hunter joked: "This is my first Red Hat event."
A long buffet line wound around large tables with red-checkered tablecloths and elaborate centerpieces with themes like the roaring twenties, beach trips, and New Year's celebrations. As a lady carrying a bright red parasol with purple fringe strode by, Eargle introduced Hunter to tables of lively women eating a hearty brunch: "This is Duncan Hunter, ya'll, and he's running for president of the United States!" Most seemed impressed, but others admitted confusion: "What are you running for, honey?" asked one elderly woman. "President," Hunter replied with a smile. "But today I'm just Lois' bag man."
Hunter donned the red baseball cap he bought for his wife and greeted small crowds of women eager to shake hands and pose for photos with a presidential candidate. A woman with a purple jacket and red satin hat topped with a purple bouquet of flowers hurried over. "I see you all the time on Wolf Blitzer and Lou Dobbs!" cried Maria Jordan from Myrtle Beach.
Adding that she used to be "a John Edwards girl," Jordan said she plans to support Hunter because of his positions on immigration and supporting the military. Moving along with the crush of the crowd, Jordan waved goodbye to Hunter and called out: "Good luck, Mr. President. . . . This is our America!"
Leaning on a nearby wall, Hunter's low-key communications director, Roy Tyler, checked his cell phone and waited on his boss. A long-time Republican and restaurant owner originally from Texas, Tyler met Hunter in 1994 when the congressman frequented his El Cajon eatery, Tyler's Taste of Texas. Both Vietnam veterans, the pair soon became hunting and golfing partners.
Though Tyler has lots of business experience, he's never dealt with the media and admits it's "overwhelming." But he says Hunter is always optimistic about any task, wryly remembering what the congressman told him when he offered him the job: "It probably won't take up too much of your time." Tyler says he worked 15 hours the first day, "and I haven't stopped since."
In the downstairs lobby, Hunter called his wife of 33 years, Lynne. The couple has two sons and four grandchildren. Their oldest son served two tours of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Marines. After chatting for a few minutes, Hunter told his wife: "I miss you too."
On a long ride to lunch, the congressman drove a silver Envoy past empty water parks and miniature golf courses while Tyler composed emails on his laptop in the front seat. The backseat floorboard bore the telltale signs of three days of campaigning on the road: McDonald's wrappers, half-eaten nachos, and empty water bottles.
While checking road signs, Hunter talked about serving on the House Armed Services Committee, which he chaired for four years until Democrats took the House this year. An ardent supporter of the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq, Hunter has helped bolster military pay, size, and firepower during his tenure on the committee.
The congressman is also strongly pro-life: He voted against federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and recently proposed legislation that acknowledges the personhood of an unborn child.
Hunter says his pro-life convictions grow out of his religious convictions. A Southern Baptist, Hunter says faith and government are intertwined: "Americans get their laws from principles, and they get their principles from God. . . . When those two coincide that's the best form of government you can have."
Last year, Hunter helped save the 43-foot cross atop the Mt. Soledad war monument in San Diego by introducing legislation in the House that enabled the city to transfer the ground directly under the cross to the ownership of the federal government, avoiding the ACLU's legal challenges to the city.
But while Hunter is socially conservative, not all his policies gel with the GOP. He vigorously opposes current free trade agreements, saying they are not fair to the United States and siphon away jobs from Americans. He voted against NAFTA and similar agreements. "I'm not against trade," he said. "I'm just for smart trade."
When asked about compassionate conservatism and the government's role in helping the poor, Hunter said the government should help people help themselves, and he circled back to his fair trade ideas: Fairer trade means more jobs for people in need.
Hunter says he isn't worried about something he'll need for his presidential campaign: lots of money. Some election watchers estimate candidates will need at least $100 million by the end of the year to compete in the primaries. Hunter, who raised about $1 million in the last election cycle, says he doesn't think he needs that much: "I don't need image consultants and I don't need pollsters telling me what my positions should be. . . . I know what I stand for."
Hunter dismisses criticism leveled by his Democratic opponent in the last election about contributions he received in the past from Brent Wilkes, a contractor connected to former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.). Cunningham, a long-time friend to Hunter, is now serving an eight-year prison sentence for accepting more than $2 million in bribes. Hunter says he returned all the money Wilkes contributed over the past 20 years, adding that Cunningham's fall was "one of the great tragedies I've seen in my life."
The congressman says he has thought about running for the presidency for a long time, and that he's in the race to win. But whatever the outcome, he says: "I'm in the process of advancing ideas. . . . I think that's what all the candidates are doing."
After a seafood lunch near the shore, Hunter and Tyler planned to squeeze in nine holes of golf, courtesy of a Democratic state senator who owns a local country club. Despite their packed schedule, Hunter was optimistic: "There's plenty of time."