Duncan Hunter's story

George Will

2/15/2007 12:01:00 AM - George Will

When Bob Hunter, a Riverside, Calif., businessman, would hear of a conservative's campaign that needed volunteers, he would pile his family into the station wagon and drive off to ring doorbells. Hunter's son Duncan grew up believing in retail politics.

When Hunter returned home after serving as an alternate Goldwater delegate at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco, he told Duncan about chatting with another alternate, an amiable fellow, some actor, named Reagan. Who two years later was elected governor. Duncan learned early on about rapid upward mobility in politics.

In 1969, he dropped out of college, joined the army and was sent to Vietnam. From there he mailed his pay to a friend who purchased for him an island in Idaho's Snake River, where Duncan farmed after his discharge. Then another friend said a San Diego law school would admit him without a college degree. In 1980 he was a lawyer with a storefront office in San Diego's Hispanic community when his father walked in and told him he could be a congressman. Never mind, his father said, that this district was only 29 percent Republican. Reagan was at the top of the ticket.

Duncan says his Baptist minister, respecting the separation of church and state, told parishioners they should vote for the Reagan of their choice. They distributed 400,000 Duncan brochures. Today Duncan is in his 14th term representing eastern San Diego County. Three weeks ago he formally launched his presidential candidacy.

Why does he think he can become the first House member elected president since James Garfield in 1880? Why does he think he can do better than the two strongest House candidates in recent elections? In 1976, Arizona Rep. Mo Udall finished second to Jimmy Carter in the New Hampshire primary (28.4 percent to 22.7 percent), then narrowly lost Wisconsin (Carter 36.6, Udall 35.6). In 1988, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt won Iowa, finished second to Michael Dukakis in New Hampshire, then ran out of money.

"For some candidates," Hunter says, "the conservative constituency is an inconvenience. For me, it is my hope." He hopes to be seen as the most conservative Republican candidate, as he understands conservatism. He is pro-life, an expert on defense issues, a hawk on border security (he authored the legislation that mandates 854 miles of fences across the major southern border routes used by smugglers of narcotics and people) and a skeptic about free trade.

He chaired the Armed Services Committee in the previous two Congresses and believes that the principal issue for the foreseeable future will be national security -- not just Iraq and terrorism, but also the rise of China's military (perhaps nine submarines under construction, with five more to come; the purchase of Russian-built destroyers designed to attack U.S. aircraft carriers with very fast and sophisticated missiles; upward of 800 medium-range ballistic missiles deployed). He believes U.S. forces can pacify Iraq, where his son served two tours as a Marine.

Asked what his wife said when he told her he was running for president, he pauses, then says, smiling: "She's happy now." She seems remarkably resilient. Not long after a wildfire consumed his house, he asked her, "Honey, can you do a fundraiser in two weeks?" She said, "Sure. My son is in Fallujah, my house has burned down, how many people do you want to invite?"

"God bless New Hampshire," Hunter says, noting that its population (1.3 million) is less than half that of San Diego County. But he almost certainly overestimates the power of retail politics in a nominating process that is becoming increasingly compressed. California, Illinois, New Jersey and Florida might move their primaries to Feb. 5. If they do, both parties' nominees might be known a year from now.

Hunter won what might have been the first contest of this presidential cycle -- the Maricopa County (Phoenix) straw poll. It's a start. He says he has $300,000 "in pledges," a sum that could be a rounding error in the McCain campaign's accounts. But he says, "I kind of know what I stand for" so "I don't need consultants, and that saves a lot of money." He has produced some commercials -- just talking to the camera -- for $200.

One-third of new businesses fail within two years; 50 percent to 70 percent of new products that make it to market fail. Hunter, a burly, rumpled political product seeking a market niche, probably will fail. But as Goldwater said when he entered politics in Phoenix in 1949, "It ain't for life and it may be fun."

George Will's e-mail address is georgewill(at symbol)washpost.com. (c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group