COLUMBIA, S.C.—They lack Rudy Giuliani's celebrity, John McCain's resume and Mitt Romney's money. They barely register in polls. Most people never heard of them.
They're among the "second tier" Republican candidates. They all were to be at Tuesday's debate here, though one had to watch it from the audience.
"I'm probably the `fourth tier,'" said John Cox, an Illinois businessman who lost a lawsuit to join the others onstage.
But he and seven other Republicans press on undaunted, hoping for a breakthrough.
For inspiration they invoke Democrats who rose from similar obscurity: Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Howard Dean in 2003.
"Four years ago, Howard Dean was the unstoppable train," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Tuesday. "John Kerry took it away from him."
Sitting in a spartan holding room outside the debate hall, Huckabee, 51, acknowledged the frustration of a lesser-known candidate.
"If (the media) continually sort of tout two or three as THE candidates, it becomes a self-perpetuating field of front-runners," he said. "Not necessarily because their message is resonating with Republican primary voters."
Huckabee, who four years ago disciplined himself into losing more than 100 pounds and becoming a marathon runner, is trying to bring the same discipline and stamina to this race. An ordained Baptist minister, he warmed up for the debate with the 15th chapter of Proverbs: "A soft answer turns away wrath. But grievous words stir up anger."
"I'll try to remember that tonight," he said before the debate.
Like Huckabee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, 50, gets annoyed with the focus on the few perceived front-runners.
"I don't like it, but that's why you have campaigns," he said. "I'm the tortoise in this race."
Nursing a plastic cup of lemonade at a restaurant reception, Brownback didn't seem like a man in a hurry. In shirtsleeves, he greeted a slow trickle of supporters. He left with a pair of advisers, not the entourage that follows some candidates.
Optimistic aides call his a "slow-build" campaign.
Brownback spent part of the day closeted with aides preparing for the debate, boiling down substantive positions to camera-friendly bites, what he described as "an art form."
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 71, doesn't worry about that. By his count, he was able to spout as many as 15 positions at the Republicans' first debate in California. At least one survey showed he outperformed his rivals.
"I don't feel second-tier at all," the congressman said.
Paul, who once ran for president as a Libertarian, has no problem distinguishing himself from the field. He's a limited-government, antiwar conservative who has little love for President Bush. To name a president he admires, he goes back to Grover Cleveland, "a strict constitutionalist."
Asked his odds, Paul said 50-50.
"Fifty percent chance you can win," he said, an impish grin flashing over his lined face. "Fifty percent you could lose."
Other second-tier candidates—former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado—might take those odds.
So would the longest of long shots, Cox.
He's a rarity, a Republican from the south side of Chicago. His political experience consists of unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and, before switching parties, a delegate seat to the Democratic National Convention in 1976. The son of a schoolteacher, he's a lawyer and certified public accountant who made a small fortune as a businessman and once owned a potato chip company.
Cox, 51, sees his lack of political experience as an asset.
"I'm not a career politician," he said. "I'm out here because America's been great to me. I'm the American dream."
Tuesday morning, the silver-haired Cox stood facing a handful of TV cameras, his navy suit and white shirt crisp despite the heat. He complained about the administration's "bungling" in Iraq and big spending as well as his exclusion from the debate.
As the handful of reporters began drifting away, Cox lingered, eager to field more questions.
What are your chances? he was asked.
"Probably low," he conceded. "But don't forget, it's still early."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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