Chris Dodd is a smart man and must know his chances of winning the nomination are longer than the odds that Nancy Pelosi will avoid reference to "the children" in her next interview. Not going to happen. James Gilmore, who needs a parenthetical phrase to explain he is the former governor of Virginia, seems like a fine fellow and highly employable in the private sector. In a rational world someone would pull him aside and tell him "no one knows who you are" and that his time would better be spent repairing the Republican train wreck in his home state.
Thankfully for pundits and late night comedians, not to mention the manufacturers of podiums for primary debates, we invariably wind up with a boat load of improbable candidates each presidential election cycle. Sometimes they even get a collective name like the Seven Dwarves in 1992. They provide comic relief, a few uncomfortable moments for the frontrunners and confirmation of the adage that anyone can grow up to run, if not actually to be, president.
So why do the unknowns run? There is no single diagnosis for this disorder. For some, the presidential primary is like the lottery. They say: "Someone has to win and sometime it’s going to be me." Every once in a great while the long shot does emerge as Bill Clinton did from the pack of dwarfs in 1992. Aside from the merits of the Clinton presidency this unfortunate twist of fate will encourage more of these anonymous candidates to come out of the shadows for years to come.
There are the obvious vice presidential test runs. They, of course, vehemently deny they are merely trying to attract the attention of the "real" candidates but they tellingly avoid saying nasty things about the fellows who might put them on the ticket. John Edwards certainly did not lack for negative things to say about John Kerry while they were both still running for the presidency; he was simply savvy enough to avoid insulting the "hiring manager."
Another category is the "prove a point" presidential run. Alan Keyes certainly relished the opportunity to explain the desirable features of a pre-14th Amendment constitutional system. Tom Tancredo will no doubt enjoy discussing the merits of a 10,000 mile fence to hermetically seal the borders. They enjoy the opportunity to take the stage and do serve the useful purpose of raising issues significant numbers of voters care about. More importantly, they give us comfort that the ultimate winner is not the worst possible choice.
There are those with either a secure job or no job at all and time on their hands. Joe Biden not satisfied with interrupting witnesses and colleagues in endless Senate hearings now can spend weekends, evenings and Congressional recesses mesmerizing coffee shop patrons in New Hampshire and farmers in Iowa. Conversely, Mike Huckabee has no other clearly attainable elected office as he departs the governorship so he might as well "go for it" on the GOP side. If you love to campaign and have nothing better to do being a presidential candidate isn’t a bad choice.
Finally, there is the "Dennis Kucinich" category of people who perhaps have been instructed to run as part of some metal health treatment plan. If not running for president they might be doing something less socially desirable (voting in the House in Dennis’ case) so it seems like a good idea to include them in the campaign.
Aside from all this comic relief they really do serve an important role. By their unpolished demeanor, rambling speeches and verbal gaffes they remind us that there is nothing "real" about the "real" candidates. Without the long shots, the scripted, coiffured ever smiling ones with the large entourages might convince us they were sponteously responding to a voter’s question rather than flipping through the mental rolodex of pre-approved answers. We might think the "five-point paradigm" and the "six-point plan" were really the candidate’s own brainstorm rather than that of the mob of consultants who follow them around. But with Joe Biden, Duncan Hunter and Dennis Kucinich around we get a little perspective, not to mention a few laughs.