MANCHESTER, N.H. — Anyone with $1,000 can get on the primary ballot in New Hampshire. That made a presidential candidate forum Monday night quite a departure from the debates the major candidates have been attending. And not just because there were 17 participants.
Timothy Brewer, a Republican from Dayton, Ohio — vowed that speaking with Jesus through "afterlife orbs" would solve the world's problems. In a thundering voice, Ed O'Donnell, a Democrat from Wilmington, Del., called for a return to "love, kindness, mercy, tolerance, friendliness, forgiveness, second chances and old-fashioned manners," and said he would outlaw all guns.
And performance artist and perennial candidate Vermin Supreme — he yanked up his shirt to show off a scar from a kidney transplant — made his familiar pitch for better oral hygiene.
"A country's future depends on its ability to bite back," he said.
Earnestness outweighed the absurd for most of the two-hour forum at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. Most of the 10 Republicans and seven Democrats said they were ordinary people motivated by the same issues that have dominated the televised debates featuring the major candidates — from the economy and the national debt to energy and foreign policy.
"We're called the lesser-known candidates," said Christopher Hill, an airline pilot from Prospect, Ky., who said called for tax reform that would let middle-class Americans keep more of their money. "Tonight, we stand for the lesser-known Americans."
Hugh Cort of Birmingham, Ala., warned that Iran is planning a nuclear attack on the United States in the very near future and called for a military strike "as soon as possible." Democrat Ed Cowan, a "writer/thinker" from Moretown, Vt., included the nuclear arms race among his list of the world's most pressing problems, but he candidly added: "Please understand, I do not have the answers. It's 'we,' not 'me,'" he said.
Likewise, Betzler Bear, a Republican from Philadelphia, paused for a bit when asked who he would pick as his running mate from among the major candidates if he won the nomination.
"I can't say I'm adequately prepared for that eventuality," he said, before naming Mitt Romney as his choice.
"There's no denying his success in business," he said. "I have a lot of confidence you could channel those skills to be a good second."
New Hampshire will hold the nation's first presidential primaries Jan. 10, with 30 Republicans and 14 Democrats from 26 states on the ballot. The number of candidates has fluctuated over the years, depending on whether an incumbent president was running. The all-time high was 1992, when there were 36 Democrats and 25 Republicans running. In 2008, there were 30 candidates, 21 Republicans and nine Democrats.
Michael Meehan of St. Louis, a real estate broker who turned to running for president when his work dried up, said he has been campaigning in New Hampshire for the last two months.
"Where else can you talk to people one on one and really get a chance to hear what people are saying?" said Meehan, a Republican.
"What if someone like me could finish in the top five?" he said. "What if we just took a chance?"