Sunday, September 14, 2003

With all the speculation that retired Gen. Wesley Clark may soon step in and give shape to the still-shapeless Democratic presidential primary campaign, pundits are wondering: Will he become “the 10th Democrat”?

But there already are 10 Democrats running. Just ask Fern Penna.

“I’ve been running longer than any of them,” he said during a brief weekend visit to the District.

Wearing a four-button suit, Mr. Penna stood in front of the White House with his hands laced neatly in front of him.

“I will make it into that White House in 2004,” he vowed, using his shoulder to point behind him. Nearby, the perennial protesters in Lafayette Park tended to their signs, paying little attention to Mr. Penna.

Though he was not included in any of the three debates and the Democratic National Committee generally ignores him, Mr. Penna has been aggressively courting Iowa voters as long as any candidate campaigning.

The Iowa Democrats included him in several candidate forums, but grew wary over some of his platform positions.

Take colonizing Mars, for example.

He promises to send humans to the red planet within weeks of taking office and says he will colonize it within years.

“It’s really not about Mars,” explained Mr. Penna, swatting at two gnats hovering around his face. “It’s about technology and space exploration.”

When Mr. Penna first arrived in Iowa, he courted party officials and talked about the vast fortune he’d made. He said he was interested in buying the party’s electronic voter file, no small purchase at $64,000.

“At the beginning we were very much open about it,” said one Iowa Democrat.

“He claimed to be a multimillionaire when we first met him,” he said. “But every time I see him he’s wearing that same four-button suit and brown hat.”

Asked about his wealth, Mr. Penna (as he often does) demurred. But he added that he would be more than happy to partially self-fund his campaign.

Mr. Penna’s Web site biography says he “exhibited leadership skills early in life. At age 7 Fern Penna was given a chance to be responsible for balancing the household budget.” The biography goes on to state that “his success in business earned him his first million dollars at the age of 19.”

Mr. Penna dismisses polls, which register no support whatsoever for him. “I’m the number one candidate, as far as I’m concerned.”

He is diplomatic in his criticism of his party for not including him more.

“I don’t like to be paraded around after nine other people,” he said. “I like to campaign on my own. Do my own thing.”

But Iowa Democrats fret a little over Mr. Penna and candidates like him.

“We can’t tell you they can’t run. We’re the party of inclusion,” said the state Democrat, who asked not to be identified saying anything critical of Mr. Penna. “I think we got ourselves in a bind there.”

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