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Hunter's Run

Photo by Ismael Rodin

ONE THING YOU CAN SAY for certain about Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter: He won’t be swayed by public opinion. When his presidential campaign officially kicked off in late January, Hunter’s name recognition was so low most voters could not form an opinion of him. Despite the fact he recently stepped down as chairman of the Armed Services Committee—a high-profile post in Congress—almost no one outside the Washington Beltway has heard of Hunter, and Republicans have barely acknowledged his candidacy. Recent polls by CBS and CNN put his Republican support at a negligible 1 percent.

No matter to Hunter, who invoked the memory of Ronald Reagan that January morning, promising to carry forward Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength.” That fact that “peace through strength” is what the current occupant of the White House was aiming for in Iraq—and so far has failed to achieve—is not an issue for Hunter. He even named his political action committee Peace Through Strength. Its Web site offers a detailed explanation of what the phrase means to Hunter, including “an American military equipped and sized to defeat any adversary.” The estimated cost of such a military is not included on the PAC’s Web site.

It’s just another example of the congressman’s determination to stay his own course, no matter what the public, the pundits or anyone else thinks. Hunter’s unwavering support of Bush, of the Iraq War, of proposals to increase troops, his stance against embryonic stem cell research, his fierce protectionist bent—all are unpopular with the majority of Americans. But, says a former staff member, Hunter is a man who follows his own mind, a man who sticks to his guns.

“He does not waver in what he believes,” says Ray Sullivan, head of Sullivan Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. “Duncan Hunter always sticks to his own principles and fights for what he thinks is right.” Sullivan was both a legislative assistant and deputy press secretary for Hunter from 1987 to 1990 and has since worked on more than a dozen campaigns, including the 1992 and 2000 Bush campaigns.

And Hunter doesn’t feel the need to explain himself, even to the voters who elected him to Congress. For nearly three months San Diego Magazine sought an interview for this story with the Alpine congressman. His press secretary, Joe Kasper, said repeatedly that Hunter wanted to speak to us but was besieged by other—presumably national—interview requests. We whittled our request down to a phone interview of 15 minutes, day or night. Still, Hunter couldn’t find time.

Neither has he interviewed at any length with The San Diego Union-Tribune. In fact, he has been estranged from the daily paper since it ran a story in October alleging he underpaid his property taxes. The newspaper’s investigation spurred Hunter to take out a full-page ad in the Union-Tribune —costing $26,000, paid for by the Committee to Re-Elect Congressman Duncan Hunter—to attempt to explain what happened and restore his credibility.

Hunter even spurned San Diego for his formal announcement, choosing Spartanburg, South Carolina, instead. Sam Popkin, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego who specializes in presidential elections, says the reason Hunter didn’t bother interviewing locally, or announce here, is that he wasn’t going to get the kind of sendoff he needed for a presidential campaign.

“He doesn’t think he’s got the hometown behind him in some powerful way,” explains Popkin. “It’s possible to be president without having a hometown boost, but virtually everyone—like Barack Obama going back to Illinois, or Al Gore who went back to Tennessee—wants the adoring crowd.”

Hunter’s timing was also questionquestionable, says Popkin. “Why do you announce you are running for president the week before a midterm battle like one we’ve had only three times this century? A week that will give you the least amount of publicity? I can’t figure it out.”

DESPITE HIS dark-horse status, his ill-timed announcement and his nearinvisibility in the polls, Hunter maintains publicly he is in it to win it. A year before the first primary, the congressman is braving the cold and pressing the flesh in New England, attending church in Manchester, New Hampshire, eating lunch—like so many other presidential hopefuls before him —at Pappy’s Pizza and talking politics from a booth in whatever local diner is available.

The issues that compel him to run are national security, a strong military and illegal immigration. In an appearance on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight in November, Hunter said the “primary issues over the next several years are going to focus on national security.” He also said border security was now a “national security issue, not simply an immigration issue.” Hunter told Newsweek in October he was running “because I believe national security and a strong military are more important issues now than they have ever been.”

He often mentions security threats posed by North Korea, Iran and China, claiming the Chinese government’s currency policies and its cheating on trade deals have made Beijing billions to use in the country’s military buildup. Hunter has been highly critical of the administration’s failure to deal with those issues.

“I thought Republicans didn’t appease communists, and that’s what we did,” Hunter said during his announcement speech in Spartanburg.

But it’s unclear if Americans will continue to respond to scary messages about terrorists infiltrating our country, the imminent threat of rogue nations or talk about a secret Chinese military buildup. After six years of the global war on terrorism, only about 30 percent of Americans now believe the United States is making any progress against terrorism, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in mid-February. And nearly two-thirds of Americans say the country is losing ground on a host of issues, including the federal budget deficit, the healthcare system and the environment. Hunter has yet to address those concerns in a substantive way.

Another challenge he faces is money. Being new to national campaigns —and finding little support, so far, among his own party members—will make it tough for him to raise the millions of dollars it takes to run a competitive presidential campaign. Hunter told the Washington Post in February he had $30,000 “in pledges,” a sum, wrote columnist George Will, that “could be a rounding error in the McCain campaign’s accounts.” Hunter also told the Post that because he knows what he stands for, he won’t need political consultants. “That saves a lot of money,” he said.

But some pundits say Hunter’s run for the White House isn’t really about being president but about raising his profile now that he’s lost his committee chairmanship to the Democrats.

“Duncan Hunter remembers what it’s like to serve in the House minority, and it’s not pleasant,” says John J. Pitney Jr., the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College. “A race for the presidency enables him to breathe a little glitz and glamour in between the humiliations and frustrations of congressional service. A presidential campaign, even a losing one, is a way of getting national exposure.”

Even if 2008 doesn’t work out, opines Pitney, a respectable run could position him for something else—like a cabinet secretary position—down the line.

Lionel Van Deerlin, a nine-term congressman, lost his seat in 1980 to Hunter. Now a weekly columnist at the Union-Tribune, Van Deerlin speculates that when Hunter saw he would no longer be chairman of the Armed Servcommitices Committee, he started thinking about what to do next. “We’re not talking about a dummy here,” says Van Deerlin. “He’s young enough to be thinking of his long-term political career. I think he saw this as an opportunity.” Although Van Deerlin says it’s reasonable to think Hunter could be looking for the vice-presidential spot on a ticket, he doesn’t discount the congressman’s ability to win the nomination. “He isn’t going to be judged on how many people know him now, but on a series of televised debates, and he’s an imposing personality.”

HunterCOULD HUNTER DO IT? Professor Sam Popkin, who’s been a pollster and a consultant to the CBS/New York Times polls, notes that Jimmy Carter ranked lower in the polls at this time in his presidential quest than Hunter does now. And not every poll has Hunter as invisible. In a GOP straw poll conducted on January 13 in Maricopa County, Arizona, Hunter was named as “first choice for president” among 12 potential candidates, including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani.

“It’s very early, and most of these candidates have low, or no, name recognition,” says Brian Darling, a congressional analyst with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. “Remember Howard Dean? No one knew who Howard Dean was, and he almost won that nomination. So it’s definitely not impossible for Duncan Hunter. But it will be hard.”

Congressman Brian Bilbray, who represents the 50th District in North County, remembers speaking with Hunter in 1980. “He was crazy enough to think he could beat Lionel Van Deerlin,” recalls Bilbray. “Since 1980, I have learned one important thing about Hunter: Don’t underestimate his ability to get the job done.”

Since that 1980 upset, Hunter has served 26 years in the House, representing the 52nd District, which encompasses eastern and northeastern San Diego County. He is a Vietnam veteran who got a law degree at Western State University Law School on the G.I. Bill and opened an office in Barrio Logan, where he served many in the community free of charge. His first assignment in Congress was the Armed Services Committee, where he eventually served as chairman.

The Hunter for Congress Web site lists a slew of endorsements, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars PAC, the California Black Republican Council of San Diego and the National Federation of Independent Business. Other endorsements come from a narrower slice of voters, like the California League of Off Road Voters PAC.

Meanwhile, Hunter has joined a crowded field. At press time, Republicans Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Sam Brownback, John Cox, John McCain, Tommy Thompson, James Gilmore III, Mike Huckabee and Tom Tancredo had announced either they were running or were exploring running for president.

The odds are also against any House of Representatives member making it to the White House. The last time it happened was with James Garfield in 1880. Since then, many, like Hunter, have tried, including Dick Gephardt, Bob Dornan, Jack Kemp and Morris Udall.

Hunter’s positions on pivotal issues such as the war in Iraq and immigration are controversial and often unpopular. He was the chief architect of legislation mandating a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, although it remains unfunded. (In January, Copley News Service reported the Congressional Research Service estimated the fence’s cost at up to $49 billion, about 20 times what Hunter said it would cost.) The notion of a border wall—without any guest-worker provisions—is not the approach the majority of Americans want, says Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UCSD.

“Over two-thirds of Americans in national opinion polls conducted since last May support a comprehensive approach to border enforcement,” says Cornelius. “They want strong enforcement in combination with a guest-worker program. Fewer than a quarter believe in border enforcement only.”

Hunter frequently speaks of terrorists and drug dealers who cross the border. Enrique Morones, the founder and president of Border Angels, an all-volunteer humanitarian group that provides food and water to migrants living in canyons, says walls and fences don’t stop the flow of illegals. Many organizations and experts, including the ACLU, share that opinion. Morones says, “Seventy-five percent of the world’s illegal drugs are consumed by Americans. So the wall does nothing to stop that flow; that is a U.S.-bred demand. Militarizing the border promotes fear, that’s all it does.”

Furthermore, immigration as an issue didn’t work for the Republicans in 2006, and it could backfire in 2008. “I don’t see Republicans nominating someone whose signature issue is a wedge issue that failed,” says Cornelius.

Hunter also supports escalating the Iraq War by increasing the number of troops there, something the vast majority of Americans oppose. After the Iraq Study Group issued a report highly critical of the administration’s handling of the war, Hunter put out a statement indirectly criticizing the group, saying, “American policy should flow from our shores with one voice. American unity on Iraq is critical, and we should move forward together. Congress and the nation should now stand behind the president as he evaluates our foreign and defense policy.”

PERHAPS MOST PROBLEMATIC for Hunter—should he be subjected to the kind of intense scrutiny presidential candidates routinely undergo—are his interactions with a cast of corrupt and suspect characters. He had a close relationship with former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned after pleading guilty to bribery charges. The men who bribed Cunningham included two San Diego–based defense contractors, one of whom was Brent Wilkes, indicted in February for paying more than $700,000 in bribes to Cunningham. Since 1994, Hunter has received more than $45,000 from Wilkes and the companies he owned. On his TV program in November, Lou Dobbs asked Hunter: “You’re accused of taking some $46,000 from the very same defense contractors that were turning money over to Duke Cunningham, who’s now sitting in prison. How do you respond to those critics who suggest something more there?”

Hunter replied, “Well, Lou, what always happens, you open up the doors to a fund-raiser, and a thousand folks come through it.”

In 1997, Hunter and Cunningham worked to extend a multimillion-dollar earmark for Wilkes’ ADCS Inc. despite protests from the Defense Department. In 2003, according to Source- Watch, a project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media & Democracy, Wilkes threw a gala in honor of Hunter called “Salute to Heroes.”

And Hunter actively discouraged congressional investigation into the Abu Ghraib torture allegations. It was reported that San Diego–based defense contractor Titan Corporation—Hunter’s top corporate campaign contributor —served as interrogators at the prison.

In the end, though, the sharpest thorn in Hunter’s side is more likely to be the same issue that lost the Republicans both houses in November: Iraq. “That’s going to be the real killer, that Duncan Hunter was chairman of the Armed Services Committee during the first four years of the war,” says UCSD’s Sam Popkin. “He is going to have to explain why he gave the president a blank check on Iraq. If he gets anywhere in the polls for president, he’ll be ripped apart on this.”

Brian Darling, the congressional analyst with the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, says by the time November 2008 rolls around, the prospect of a Republican president may be moot anyway. “The American people are very discouraged with Bush and very upset about the lack of progress in Iraq,” he says. “I don’t think any Republican will have a chance in 2008 if the situation in Iraq doesn’t change. At that point, it won’t matter who the candidate is.”

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