John Cox says all he wants is a chance to compete on a level Republican presidential playing field.
The Chicago businessman was the first Republican to declare he was running for the party’s presidential nomination, has spent more than some of the better-known candidates and has even placed well in recent straw polls in South Carolina.
But he will be standing outside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., during tonight’s first Republican candidate debate, arguing that he has as much right to be on the stage as the other candidates do.
“I’m doing this because I represent that Republican activist that feels they’ve been taken for granted, they’ve been ignored. They’ve got presidential candidates that don’t fit their profile,” he said in an interview, in which he said the press is failing to give him the time and attention he deserves.
Mr. Cox points to the Aiken County, S.C., straw poll on April 19 as proof of what he can do. As the only candidate to show up personally, he took 30 percent of the vote, edging former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by three percentage points, although he did poorly in the state’s other counties.
“I won the straw poll. I beat Romney. [Arizona Sen. John] McCain and [Kansas Sen. Sam] Brownback were in low single digits,” he said. “Aiken was the first real time I had a chance for an open playing field. … They kind of left Aiken as a level playing field for us.”
The straw poll results follow on a survey taken by IowaPolitics.com of Iowa Republican county chairmen in February and March, which found three chairman committed to Mr. Cox and 25 percent of all undecided chairmen saying they are considering supporting him — putting him fifth on the list, behind Mr. Romney, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and others, but ahead of Mr. McCain.
Mr. Cox has had party leaders write letters to the Reagan library and other debate sponsors on his behalf, asking that he be included. But for now he says he’s caught in a Catch-22 — he can’t join the debates until he registers in the polls, but he can’t gain approval without getting attention. He is an investor with sizable personal wealth who says he will fund the operations through the end of the campaign. He said any donations will be used for ads.
Mr. Cox has shown that he is willing to stake his money in the past, doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in failed bids to win Republican nominations for Congress from Illinois.
So far, with $745,000 contributed to this race, he’s almost entirely self-funded. But he still outspent many of the lower-tier elected officials such as former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who raised only about $200,000 in the first fundraising quarter.
Some people have donated — to the tune of $12,106 in contributions from Jan. 1 through March 31 — almost all of them coming in denominations lower than $50.
Raymond Thomas, who owns a plumbing company in Gloucester, Va., contributed $25, and said it was simple for him.
“He’s a supporter of the ‘fair tax,’ ” referring to Mr. Cox’s support for replacing the current tax code with a national sales tax. The idea is attractive to many conservatives, though others favor a flat income tax.
Mr. Cox hews to conservative positions up and down the line. Asked whether anything makes him stand out from the pack, he says only that he is an outsider untainted by Washington and Republicans’ decline in that city under President Bush.
He appears conflicted about what to make of former Sen. Fred Thompson, who is considering a presidential run. But he is brutal in assessing the rest of the field.