First openly gay presidential candidate wants chance to debate


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Fred Karger doesn't mind being known as the gay Republican candidate.

It sends a positive message, he says — one of optimism and equality. He believes it would be a major accomplishment to just get beyond his sexual preference.

The 61-year-old may be the first openly gay presidential candidate from a major party, but he said he rarely brings up his sexuality during interviews. Actually, he'd like to be known as "Fred, who just happens to be gay."

Karger doesn't have as much name recognition as Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee or Donald Trump. He hasn't received invitations to any debates. Nationwide, he hasn't even reached 1 percent of the public's support — though he hasn't been included in major national polls.

What Karger does have are stickers that self-deprecatingly say "Fred Who?" He has his signature pin — a rainbow flag crossed with the traditional red, white, and blue. And he has what he hopes is a fresh message.

He anticipates all the youthful accouterments and ideas will attract students, who he believes will be crucial to his campaign and the entire Republican Party.

"I'm trying to be a different voice in the Republican Party," he told about two dozen College Republicans Tuesday night. "Moderate on social issues but stick with conservative principals. We need young people."

He's not just trying to court Republicans. He thinks his message of creating a "big-tent party" could appeal to young independent voters — those who may be fiscal conservatives but leery of the party's hard line on social issues.

"I want a place in the party for fiscal conservatives and social moderates," he said. "That's the party I grew up with. It's changed."

Karger also wants to bring the country together. He spoke almost longingly of the days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, when he said fights occurred on the Senate floor, but members of opposite parties could go out for dinner together afterwards. That's the message he spends the most time one: one of reconciliation.

The California native calls himself an untraditional candidate. He's a former Republican Party strategist who worked on campaigns for former Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush before coming out as gay in 2006 and becoming a staunch advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.

He's a fiscal conservative who founded a campaign to save the oldest gay bar in the western U.S. And he's a Republican presidential-nomination candidate who maxed out his donations to Hillary Rodham Clinton and still supports Democratic Iowa Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal.

"The Republican Party, a lot of the leadership isn't too happy with me because I'm pretty moderate," he told The Daily Iowan. "The LGBT community isn't happy with me because I'm Republican."

But he's hopeful.

"It's lessening," he added.

The 30-year veteran of Republican politics recalled his first meeting with the New Hampshire Republican Party in 2010 and what he called the closed off, defensive postures of those officials. He recalled a letter Steve Scheffler, Iowa's national committeeman to the Republican National Committee, sent him, vowing to crush his campaign in Iowa.

"When I 'came out' as a Republican," Karger said, pausing over his choice of words as a nod to the recent campus controversy over a Republican group's use of the term, "that was difficult because doors were just slammed in my face, and that really hurt. And in the Republican Party, when I came out as gay, doors were slammed in my face there."

But those doors are opening again for Karger, who said he supports the Iowa Supreme Court's decision to allow gay marriage.

"I love it," he said. "I love the message it sends. The reason I am such a huge gay-marriage advocate is not personal, because my marriage days are presumably over, but because of the message it sends to younger people."

As a fiscal conservative, the reasons are also economic. Gay marriage pumps more money into a state's economy, he said.

The long-shot candidate is still sticking with basic Republican principals: "small government, entrepreneurship, tough on crime, strong defense."

"It rings true with a lot of college students, who may be more open to social issues," said John Twillman, the chairman of the UI College Republicans. "He's definitely doing a good job appealing to a younger crowd."

Twillman said Karger had clearly evolved in his understanding of major issues since the last time he spoke at the UI.

Now, what Karger needs is more name recognition, he said.

Karger said he hopes to get that by participating in debates. But that road will be tough as well. He wasn't invited to the first major debate in South Carolina on May 5 — though he accepted a spot at the podium.

"I want to be in that debate," he said Tuesday night, banging his fist on the table. "I want a seat at that table. I want to talk about some issues."

But first he needs to meet a set of criteria that includes garnering 1 percent support in five major polls. He's appealing the requirement, alleging he can't possibly get 1 percent when he's not included in polls.

Casey Mills, the communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa, said it is too early to say which candidates would be included in Iowa's debates, though they would also have to meet specific criteria.

"If I do get into a debate, it will be historic," Karger said. "If I get into a debate, that really takes it to a new level because I'm suddenly in with all the other candidates."

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