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Onetime political wunderkind Buddy Roemer faces long odds in 2012 bid

The GOP's white-bread presidential primary has a dash of Tabasco.

"I should be president or somebody better than I should be," former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer said in an interview. "And the only way to make sure of that is to make (my opponents) go around me, through me or over me in the primaries."

While Roemer is a native son of a state that witnessed a miracle last year — the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl — he faces very long odds. A former Democratic member of Congress who switched to the GOP in 1991, midway through his single term as governor, Roemer has been largely absent from politics since consecutive failed gubernatorial runs. In Louisiana circles, he is a onetime political wunderkind who is remembered more for what he might have been than what he accomplished.

But Roemer explained that his experience at the helm of a small bank that didn't get bailout money and doesn't exert much political influence in Washington has him worried about the country and wanting to join the debate.

Roemer said: "The nation is hurting with 9 percent unemployment, 9 percent underemployment and 5 percent of the people who have quit looking for jobs, yet Washington is a boom town — what's wrong with that picture?"

The Louisianan indicated he would run as both a reformer and a populist, promising to limit his contributions to $100 per person, swear off PAC dollars and target what he depicted as the scourge of Big Money's impact on politics.

Roemer, noting that he is a diabetic, said: "You are what you eat. And in politics, you are where you get your money. Presidents and politicians get their money from people who want something."

He took swings at the political establishment from the right, railing against the new health care law, but also the left, decrying the Wall Street reform bill for not being tough enough.

His campaign theme is "Free to Lead," Roemer said, boasting: "I'm going to be independent from the Big Money, Wall Street money, special interest money; that's going to be my mark in this campaign."

The former governor's Huey Long-meets-Jerry Brown campaign — minus the 1-800 number — will surely be dismissed by many GOP professionals. It is also already being mocked by Louisiana politicos who have long viewed Roemer as an eccentric underachiever.

Asked to comment on Roemer's fledgling run, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in an e-mail that didn't mention Roemer: "We just finished up an election in the fall, and it's still very early in the process. Lots of folks are concerned about the messenger, but I think we should be focused on the message. We have to be for ideas and policies that put our country back on a path to economic prosperity."

But Roemer's long-shot bid neatly captures how dissatisfied many party elders are with the 2012 field: Even a politician who hasn't won an election since 1987 has a glimmer of hope.

"I'd love to be president," said Roemer, 67, when pressed on whether he thinks he has a shot at the nomination. "I would settle for somebody better than me, but I haven't seen them out there."

A talented orator in the tradition of an old-fashioned Southern pol, the Shreveport native began his quixotic campaign in March, his first foray into national politics except for a well-received stint as a surrogate in 2008 for Sen. John McCain.

And how exactly will he fund a national campaign by capping each of his donors at $100 cumulatively in an era when the sitting president may crack the $1 billion mark?

"You think I can get 4 million Americans to give me $100 each?" he asked. "That's $400 million."

Asked whether he thinks he can raise anywhere near that in a primary, Roemer recalled that he faced the same doubts when he imposed limits on himself in his successful 1987 gubernatorial race among an array of well-connected candidates, including incumbent Gov. Edwin Edwards and former Reps. Bob Livingston and Billy Tauzin.

The political past still seems fresh to Roemer. Even as he eyes the White House, it's plain that Louisiana's sharp-elbowed politics and ancient grudges aren't far from his mind.

For a time in the late '80s, the Harvard-educated governor was seen as a political comer. He ran as a reformer against the flamboyant Edwards, who was then at the end of his third term, and won national acclaim at the outset of his tenure in Baton Rouge. Along with neighboring Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, two other Ivy Leaguers, Roemer was seen as a leader of a new vanguard of 40-something moderate Southern Democrats.

But Roemer had only mixed success as governor, and he earned a reputation as an eccentric for, among other quirks, having staffers wear rubber bands on their arms and slapping them if they thought negative things.

After switching parties midway through his term and angering both pro-Edwards Democrats and his former Republican adversaries, Roemer didn't even make the runoff in 1991 — a race famously won by Edwards, who urged Louisianans to "vote for the crook" over white supremacist David Duke.

Four years later, Roemer failed to make the runoff again, coming in fourth place.

Roemer's attempt to resurrect his long-dormant political career has some in Louisiana snickering — and invoking his old rival, who was released from federal prison in January after serving eight years for a corruption conviction.

"Even after nine years in the pen, Edwards commands a significantly more loyal following than Roemer," Times-Picayune columnist James Gill cracked in a biting piece titled "Buddy Roemer: Still Crazy After All These Years?"

Roemer brushed off the shot.

"My approach has always been different, and it's always received skepticism from the homeboys here," he said.

But he revealed how fresh Edwards still is in his mind when asked what Americans may think about the notion of a Louisiana politician running a reform campaign. Roe­mer suggested they may laugh but then recall his defeat of Edwards nearly 25 years ago when he imposed limits on his fundraising and still beat his nemesis "like a yellow dog."

Former Rep. Jim McCrery, an aide to Roemer when the former governor was in Congress who eventually took his seat, said most in the state have lost track of his former boss.

"Ninety-nine out of 100 people couldn't tell you where Buddy Roemer is today," McCrery said. "But he has a pretty good story to tell about what he's done since being out of the public eye."

Roemer intends to highlight just how difficult a community bank such as the one he founded, Business First Bank, has it at a time when large Wall Street institutions are deemed "too big to fail" but smaller lending institutions that serve local small businesses succumb to the market.

His greatest impact, though, may be what he says on the debate stage about a political system many in the country revile and, closer to the bone, how his fellow hopefuls on the stage are complicit in what he thinks is a rotten game.

As the song goes, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

Henson Moore, a former GOP congressman from Louisiana who served with Roe­mer in Congress, said his former colleague had talked up his plans at a men's dinner group — winkingly called the "Rouge Syndicate" — that they both attend in the state capital.

"He doesn't care what you think, and he's not worried about what comes after this race," said Moore. "This is his last hurrah; he's going to (say what) he thinks, and if they don't like it, tough."

POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.

Buddy Roemer

Age: 67. Born Oct. 4, 1943, Shreveport, La.

Professional experience: businessman, farmer, banker; U.S. House of Representatives, 1981-1988 as Democrat; governor of Louisiana, 1988-1992 as Democrat; changed party affiliation to Republican in 1991.

Family: Wife Scarlett, three children.

Education: B.S., Harvard University, 1964; M.B.A., Harvard Business School, 1967.

Religion: Methodist.

Sources: buddyroemer.com, congress.gov, Louisiana Secretary of State

Onetime political wunderkind Buddy Roemer faces long odds in 2012 bid 08/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 12:26pm]

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