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New York, New York

87 Votes and Counting

The Democrats have a tight grip on the nation’s attention, especially when no Republican has a chance of beating George Bush for the party’s nomination. But that doesn’t mean some aren’t trying.

When the results from the presidential primary in New Hampshire began rolling in on the evening of Jan. 27, Mark ‘Dick’ Harnes was enjoying dinner with a woman he had met through Match.com. When he returned to his East 70th Street apartment later in the evening, he popped a taped episode of the TV show Line of Fire into the VCR. Not once did he flip to CNN to hear Wolf Blitzer announce the night’s winners.

That’s at least slightly curious considering Harnes (pronounced Har-NESS) was one of 13 candidates challenging President George W. Bush in the Republican primary, an event that was vastly overshadowed by the Democratic primary of the same night. A former limousine company owner who now works in corporate security, he was one of those aspirants for the presidency described, if they are lucky to be described at all, as ‘quixotic’ or ‘fringe.’ (Tom Laughlin, the actor who played the early 1970s cinema hero Billy Jack, was also lunging at windmills this year. I would have interviewed him if he had returned my messages.) Although Harnes didn’t tell his coworkers or his bosses, he had spent two long weekends in New Hampshire, where he spoke before a forum of ineligible-to-vote high school students (his only speech), handed out literature and buttons (‘In 2004 Beat the Bush War Profiteers’), and conducted a few radio and newspaper interviews with sympathetic journalists.

Harnes, the only New Yorker in the Republican primary, wasn’t so delusional to think that he actually had a chance to beat Bush. He also didn’t seem to have an overwhelming desire to communicate his stands on the issues. His candidacy seemed to rest on the fateful words: ‘Let’s run The Dickster.’

‘My nickname is The Dickster,’ he said. ‘I have a cousin who’s involved in Democratic politics; he once ran for state senate. He’s been going up to New Hampshire since 1984—to collect literature and meet the candidates. Now he’s got kids who are eight and 10, and they travel up with another family with kids. This made it a little more fun—to have a candidate with you. My cousin said, ‘Let’s run The Dickster.’’

Harnes doesn’t have the bearing of a shrill activist. I met him a day before the primary at a Starbucks on the Upper East Side, where he was easy to spot among the languid latte-sippers. He wore a nifty leather jacket with the presidential seal on the left breast and the words Air Force One on the right, something right out of President Bush’s easy-and-casual closet. He handed me a FedEx envelope with a campaign button and two sheets of paper explaining his positions. We sat down at a table near the window without ordering grotesquely overpriced beverages.

He began by telling me about his first run for the presidency, in 2000. He received 34 votes after spending two days in New Hampshire and making a single speech.

‘The first day I actually just wandered around,’ he recalled. ‘I went to the Museum of New Hampshire History and a couple of other sites in Concord. I think I talked to some people in a coffee shop. That was it. The next day I did a presidential forum in Nashua. I would say there were 200 people there. And I’m gonna bet that that one forum, speaking for five, 10 minutes, got me the 34 votes.’

Harnes, who is 52, spoke in the calibrated, easy-on-the-ears tones of a radio personality. In fact, he once worked as a disc jockey in New Hampshire. He is a casual man with soft features and short, gray hair, and his comments were often punctuated with a smile. He could have easily passed for a two-term congressman from southern Ohio, say. In fact, he grew up in Manhattan on East 65th Street between Park and Madison. After graduating from Emerson College in Boston, he worked a succession of jobs, including as a car salesman, an ambulance driver, a comedian (under the pseudonym Richard Hertz), a journalist, and a waiter.

But he spent more than a decade building a limousine company, which eventually boasted 25 cars and 65 employees. During this same time, he did government security work, which enabled him to get close to Presidents Bush (the first) and Reagan. Showing me an identification badge that looked quite authentic, he told me he had to be vague about the details.

‘I was in a security field, very complicated,’ he said. ‘But I did do presidential details—Reagan, Bush, Secretary of State Schultz, Secretary of State Baker. I was one of the drivers in the ticker-tape parade when the hostages returned from Iran. I was a driver for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit on Governor’s Island. For about 10 years, I was assigned to anybody that came in for the British government. I met Princess Diana.’

During the Reagan and Gorbachev meeting, Harnes experienced one of the most profound events of his life. ‘[The two leaders] had lunch and then they took a little drive across the island,’ he said. ‘A little tour. The motorcade stopped—I was in the camera car, what we called Camera One. In every motorcade, there is a camera car, filming everything. It’s a pool camera for whichever network wants it. Anyway, Reagan and Gorbachev get out of their limousine and walk over to the water’s edge. And they stood facing the harbor talking to each other. No security. No interpreters. And this was photographed ad infinitum. And what were they staring at? The Statue of Liberty. I mean, that was incredible. You had a bolt of lightning striking you, telling you that the Cold War had come to an end. It was an amazing moment. And I will tell you, there was not a dry eye.’

Harnes left that job in 1992 and has since been employed by what he calls a ‘Fortune 10’ company. He declined to be more specific, seeming to fear that his employer would be turned off by his political ambitions. This may explain why he didn’t share his White House dreams with anyone at work. ‘Down here, I don’t talk about it,’ he said.

‘People are proud to be Americans because we are at war,’ he said. ‘Now let’s take that over to buying a product that is made in the United States.’ In two words: Buy American. He proposed sizable tax deductions for anyone who purchases a new automobile made in the United States. He argued for ‘automotive enterprise zones’ with guaranteed government loans for the construction of new auto manufacturing plants. He attacked American oil companies profiting from the Iraq occupation and pledged to use war profits to lower the price of gasoline.

The candidate pushed this message harder this year than he did in 2000.

‘Campaigning for president is a license to harass,’ he said grinning. ‘In Berlin, New Hampshire, I went to a Dunkin’ Donuts at eight o’clock in the morning. There were 25 cars in the parking lot—24 American and one Japanese. I walked into the doughnut shop and said, ‘Who owns the Toyota?’ The guy was upset because he thought somebody probably hit it. So he said, ‘It’s mine,’ and I said, ‘I’m running for president, and you should be ashamed of yourself.’ Now if I did that under normal circumstances, I would probably be arrested. But I’m running for president.’

Harnes once was thrown out of a supermarket.

‘We actually were going to a Kerry event, an exhibition hockey game,’ he said. ‘The price of admission was canned goods, which would be given to the homeless. So we went to a supermarket and I started handing out literature and talking to the shoppers. The manager came out and he was wild. Wild. So we went outside. Then he came out and said, ‘No, you can’t do it in the parking lot either.’ My cousin, who is a lawyer, and one of the other guys, who is a lawyer, started screaming at him. So I told the guy, ‘Let’s have some fun today because I’d love some media attention. Call the cops.’ And then he was really mad. He wasn’t calling the cops. He just wanted us out of there.’

Just before we left Starbucks, Harnes described his favorite moment of the campaign: his visit to tiny Dixville Notch. The hamlet’s residents traditionally are the first to vote in the state at 12:01 a.m. on primary day, thanks to a quirk in the state’s law and some dedicated poll workers. He wrote letters to all 12 of the village’s registered Republicans and had his picture placed on the wall of the local hotel next to those of scores of visiting politicians who had come before him.

It was clear that Harnes wasn’t at all discouraged by the trying task of begging for votes. After listening to him describe how he stood out in the cold and debated grumpy New Englanders, I asked him, ‘Is it fun?’ Harnes beamed. Putting strong emphasis on each word, he said, ‘I. Had. A. Great. Time.’

A few days after the primary, I called Harnes to see how he did in the voting.

‘I was disappointed that we didn’t get anything from Dixville Notch,’ he said. ‘But at last count we got 87 votes, more than double what I got in 2000. Al Sharpton didn’t do much better than that. And think of the amount of exposure he had! He hosted Saturday Night Live! He was on every network news broadcast.’

‘I’m very pleased,’ he continued. ‘I am very happy. I know that sounds crazy, but I am. I think it’s great that I was able to talk to people and touch their lives in a positive manner.’