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America's answers to Lord Sutch

In his official filing as a candidate for the President of the United States in the New Hampshire primary, Billy Joe Clegg had left few clues as to his whereabouts. There was no mention of a campaign headquarters and it did not help that he had listed Jesus Christ as his press spokesman. Or so I thought.

"But he guided you here, didn't he? How else did you find me?" proclaims Mr Clegg, when finally we meet in Room 21 of a shabby roadside motel just outside Concord, the state capital. "And by the way, having Jesus as my assistant helps with the overheads."

A 67-year-old Baptist minister from Mississippi with crystal blue eyes, Mr Clegg - "Clegg Won't Pull Your Leg" - concedes his eccentricity with a chuckle. But in his quixotic quest to become the leader of the free world - and save it from the sins of "homosexuality, lasciviousness, deceit and abortion" - he is most serious. He has run in New Hampshire for the Republican Party nomination every four years since 1972.

The minister is in good company. While the media lavish their attention on the handful of "serious" candidates, which this year means Bob Dole, Steve Forbes and the four or five others snapping at their heels - and, of course, Bill Clinton - few remember that the field is much larger. This year, there are no fewer than 45 hopefuls stumping in the state, of whom 22 are Republicans, 21 are Democrats and two are Libertarians.

This is the other feature of the New Hampshire primary that makes it special, aside from it being the first of the presidential season. In fact, it positively encourages all comers to take part. While almost every other state sets high hurdles for candidates to qualify for the ballot, New Hampshire has only one condition: payment of a $1,000 (pounds 650) participation fee.

This year the field is as diverse as ever. Aside from Mr Clegg for the Republicans, there is Caroline Killeen from Arizona, otherwise known as the "Hemp Lady", running as a Democrat on a platform of legalising cannabis. Also on the Democratic ticket is Michael Levinson, a New York writer, who advocates "the four-day week, the six-hour day, the seven-month year". David Pauling, a former Marine from Florida, proposes closing the US deficit by printing $5 trillion in dollar bills as soon as he takes the oath of office.

Notably absent this year is Harold Stassen, a Minnesota Republican who came third in New Hampshire in 1948 and kept trying in the state with ever-diminishing success through 10 election years. Now aged 88, he has finally given up and handed over the perennial's mantle to Mr Clegg.

"New Hampshire gives these people their day in the sun," explains Hugh Gregg, a former governor of the state who is writing a book about this year's fringe candidates. "Eighty per cent of them are very dedicated and sincere and have a mission. They don't necessarily think they are going to make it, but they really think they can make a difference by at least getting their message on to the agenda and having an impact on the country."

So take no notice when you read that Mr Clinton is "unopposed" by any other Democrat in his bid for a second term. Among the 21 Democrats hoping lightning might strike in New Hampshire and dislodge the President is Heather Anne Harder, an earnest businesswoman from Indiana whose principal pitch is restoring the primacy of the constitution and "returning government to the people". She has a smart campaign headquarters in Concord, is decorating the state with red and blue placards, and plans to keep running all the way to the party convention in August.

Serving tea and shortbread, Mrs Harder says she has been preparing for this since 1990 and, in an astonishing gesture of self-confidence, has already bought the dress she expects to wear to her inaugural ball. "I have given up my nice, credible life that I had before and moved into a world where everyone automatically thinks I am crazy. But what I'm doing is bigger than Heather Harder," she explains.

Back in his motel room, Mr Clegg, who expects to spend $2,000 of his veteran's pension on the whole campaign, is no less sanguine. "God has called on me to run for President to warn America. I know it's God's will for me to run and if a miracle happens and God helps me to win the New Hampshire primary and I go on to be President of the United States, then of course God will give me the wisdom to solve the secular problems of America."