The United States of America is the size of western Europe in both population and landmass. In fact, there's a theory that the 300,000,000 or so Americans could legitimately be divided into five separate countries along cultural lines.
They would form the sophisticated, erudite nation of Coasts with Los Angeles and San Francisco on the west and New York, Washington, DC and Boston on the east. Historical, academic and pretty New England would make up another country, as would the enormous, farmer-filled Midwest. The Deep South could compete in nutty bible-bashing with Florida, which is weird enough to justify a category all of its own.
Yet when it comes time to elect a President, these varied sections of the country are forced to unite and choose one person to represent them all. Not only that, but they have to pick between just two parties with very little to divide them: red Republicans and blue Democrats that mix into a purple no one really likes.
It's little wonder then, that the religious zealots of the south, or the hippies on the coasts, feel like they're under-represented and crave a third party. And in November 2008, if they look carefully, all Americans even those disenchanted with the desperate search for the middle ground will have someone to vote for.
All they have to do is request the official list of candidates from the Federal Election Commission. There, alongside household names such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani who will begin competing in their party's primaries next month are about 200 others of every faith, colour and persuasion. A grip on reality is optional.
I recently spent a month travelling the length and breath of the USA, seeking out the candidates for the presidency you probably have never heard of. As a snapshot, albeit in extremes, of the state of the nation you can do no better. There are several disenchanted blue-collar workers, cast adrift by the slow death of the motor industry. Religious fanatics, mostly Christian, and former military types are listed next to candidates who want to legalise weed and outlaw guns. Avowed Nazis jostle for position with eccentric Hollywood figures, and even former Tinseltown stars. And, of course, there are those who are resolutely, sublimely, irrefutably nuts.
Flicking through the list you see people calling themselves Emperor Caesar (of Orlando, Florida), Jesus Bilal Islam Allah Muhammad (of Dearborn, Michigan) and one political party calling itself Lalli Berty Royal Vegi Princess Hempmadisacia Feminist Defense Committee To Elect Lally President. I'd love to see how they fit that on a badge.
"Legally, once a candidate raises or spends more than $5,000 on their campaign, they have to register with us," says a spokesperson for the Federal Election Commission (FEC). "Although a lot of people just register without having to. It's a fairly simple process, with just two forms and no filing fee."
It's not quite that simple to get on to a ballot paper, however, as each state has its own rules. In fact, with the Byzantine election regulations in place, it's very hard for an independent candidate to make the ballot in all 50 states, and therefore even harder for one to win.
For some this doesn't matter. They're just standing to get a particular issue abortion (pro and anti), corruption, the power of lobbying in Washington highlighted. For others, like South Carolina-based Nazi Party candidate John Taylor Bowles, it's a tragedy, and the only thing stopping them picking curtains for the Oval Office.
"Even if I can take just a few states, which is possible," says a man who, after all, wears a Swastika when out doorstepping potential voters, "then neither of the major parties can win, and they'll have to come to me and offer a deal."
The one thing that unites them all, from performance artists to staunch right-wingers, is an unflinching optimism. Stick a pin in the list, talk to that candidate and chances are they are running just to make things (in their view) better. Even if they want to do it by outlawing alcohol, or returning the country to strict Christian law and governing by the 10 Commandments. (After all, it does seems wrong that you can still so freely covet your neighbour's ass.) But then, no one ever said that any American's dream had to make sense.
John Taylor Bowles
The Nazi Party
Complete with swastikas, stormtroopers, Sieg Heils and manic racism, the American Nazi party is hoping to convince the nation (around a third non-white) that Hitler wasn't so bad after all.
"I went from being not mentioned, to being considered a longshot, and now I'm a probability," says their candidate, John Taylor Bowles, of his chances.
The friendly, easy-laughing 50-year-old former Federal Department of Agriculture worker is hoping to storm the White House from his base in South Carolina with policies including sending all black people back to Africa, where they'll be provided with "nice houses and pools and malls". And of course, a little Holocaust-denying.
But what of America's Jews? "I'd want to fulfil Adolf Hitler's plan to relocate them to Madagascar," says Bowles. "There wouldn't be any Arabs with rocket launchers, they'd be able to sit on the beaches and drink cocktails and have a good old time."
And politicians contesting the next election on this side of the Atlantic will need to watch out too. "England is 10 more years down the road to degeneracy than we are, and I'd like
to see the National Socialists rise up there too. We were on the wrong side in World War Two; Hitler didn't want these mud people running around in America and Europe."
But now for the really vital question: who does he root for in The Sound of Music? "I don't like Julie Andrews," he replies, after an ominous silence.
Princess Christina Gerasimos Billings-Elias
The wonderfully named Miss Gerasimos Billings-Elias claims her spurious title because her grandfather was the first Greek in Detroit (in 1890). So the staff of Debrett's need not worry.
She's standing from a base in where else? Hollywood, and claims that her rise to the White House was predicted by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt when she was a child.
"When I become President in 2008," she says, "I will immediately call for an international conference for all nations apologising for the past Presidents of the United States for wrongful decision-making."
Her platform otherwise seems muddled, but centres on dealing with government corruption. "Whistleblowers of Government misconduct, or private citizens, who as a result were dismissed from their positions will be compensated at least 50 per cent of their salaries by a special bill," explains the Princess.
"I have also dedicated myself, my know-how and personal assets of copyrights and trademarks to raise as much money as possible to bring back home our troops in Iraq."
Her website features a strange picture of her with vaguely vampire-like teeth, a brown bouffant wig and a black-and-white picture for a face. Sections like "The Chosen One" outline, in barely comprehensible rambling sentences, her family history, her favourite sports and odd writings on topics "restoring harmony".
A slogan I saw on a T-shirt recently sums it up best: LA is weird.
Mike Jingozian is an everyday forty-something guy. He runs his own successful internet media company in Portland, Oregon. He has a wife and two young children, aged two and four. Yet he's borrowed $150,000 to fund his "Reset America" campaign to run for President in 2008. Why?
"I'm doing it for my kids," he says. "It's a sacrifice that money would have paid for their college educations but what I'm doing is more important than what I'm spending. I'm doing this for all young people."
Jingozian thinks that Americans are sick of the current political system. "The people running our country aren't concerned about sustainability or survivability," he says. "Their policies have nothing to do with what's in the best interests of our country, just with who makes the biggest campaign contributions. The whole two-party system is corrupt."
"Reset America is about understanding the problem, and doing something about it while there's still time."
His aim is to win 5 to 7 per cent of the popular vote, and prove that a viable third party is possible. "It's a lot of money," says Jingozian, "especially when you don't have any but there's nothing more important. Our personal freedoms are under attack." His wife Angie, son Joshua, four, and daughter Lilia, two, are supporting him all the way.
Most shrewd political advisors would counsel against appearing naked except for your shoes and socks and having a girl grind up and down on you. But performance artist and paraplegic Frank Moore isn't following the usual advice.
He's known as the "Stephen Hawking of performance art" and communicates, like the esteemed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, with a pointing board. His Vice Presidential candidate is Dr Susan Block, an internet and telephone sex therapist who also hosts an explicit cable and internet TV show. It's not family viewing.
"Define win," he says through his interpreter Carol when I ask about his chances. "I have already won. You are talking to me. It's not just a publicity exercise. But [an effort] to get the issue talked about in a real way."
His policies include abolishing welfare and social security in favour of a $1,000-a-month payment for every adult, free education and healthcare for all, a flat-rate tax of 10 per cent for earnings up to $1m, with a 75 per cent rate on earnings above that, and halving the military budget.
"I suppose at first it's kind of funny," says VP candidate Dr Susan Block. "Here's this quadriplegic artist and a pretty outspoken sex therapist who likes to dress up in lingerie. But I think when people read our platform they'll find there's a lot of sense in it.
"Right now some politicians are sexually repressed and channelling their sexual energies into big phallic bombs and war and destruction," she explains of her role in the administration. Make love not war, indeed.
"I believe that the Lord has called me to run for President because this country needs a leader who will bring it back to God and his plan for the US," says the 61-year-old potential Potus (President of the United States) David Furniss.
Furniss is a former Army Lieutenant, computer programmer and dog-groomer who lives in Florida. It seems he doubts Dubya's hotline to heaven, because he's standing on a return to "Christian principles".
He's the archetypal religious Republican, albeit without the professional sheen that allowed two creationists on to the mainstream party ticket for 2008. "No law that is passed by Congress will be signed by me if it violates God's laws," he confirms. "At the very least I want to return the 10 Commandments to our government, courtrooms and schools. Separation of church and state you scream? Show it to me in the constitution."
He is vehemently anti-abortion, in all cases, and would overturn Roe vs Wade (the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that allowed abortion in America) if elected. "Rape is a sin against the woman," he explains, "but if she then has an abortion, she commits murder," he says. He also intends to reduce the size of the Federal Government by 60 per cent, increase the size of the military, and kick out all illegal immigrants.
Anyone who's spent time in the deep south where many regard George W Bush as a bleeding heart liberal with Commie tendencies will tell you not to write him off completely.
Yaphet Kotto, for those of you who don't spend hours browsing IMDb, is a moderately successful actor. He played the bad guy in Live and Let Die, the Federal Agent Alonzo Mosely chasing after Robert De Niro in Midnight Run, one of the running men in Running Man and was the first guy to be killed by the full-grown alien in Alien.
He's dabbled in elections before he supported Forbes magazine heir (and current Rudy Giuliani advisor) Steve Forbes's run for the presidency in 1996. He was also, according to his campaign, co-chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality in New York in the Sixties.
Now, if you believe the Federal Election Commission and a website called yaphetkotto.org, he's ready to follow his Running Man co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger into frontline politics.
Mr Kotto, however, is nowhere to be found. "I haven't represented him in 12 years," says his one-time agent. The Screen Actors' guild gives me a number for him that doesn't work, and his website goes down.
So why has the mysterious Mr Kotto registered to stand? "At this pivotal and dangerous time in our nation's history," says a release from his campaign, "there is a widespread, commonly held apprehension that our country is heading in the wrong direction, and the equally powerful sense that there is nothing that any one of us can do to stop it." Yes, I read it in that deep film-trailer voice too.
Few would have bet on B-movie star Ronald Reagan making it to the Oval Office, so stranger things have happened. The only thing that can stop him is, on past evidence, a determined Roger Moore as James Bond and/or an alien with acid for blood. Or, of course, fellow deep-voiced authority-figure actor Fred Thompson, who may also be running as a candidate for the Republicans.
Michael Jesus Archangel
While he's only a runner-up in the race for best name on the list of candidates for 2008 (see the introduction for the winners), Michael Jesus Archangel might claim victory in another closely fought battle and take home the "most eccentric" title.
He looks a little like an overweight Mexican Frank Zappa, he lives in Michigan, and also runs a private investigations agency, as well as a "Cosmic Reserve Bank" that prints "heavenly banknotes", which he'll doubtless have to register for the FEC as campaign donations.
Michael starts our incredibly brief phone call by saying: "I have been at war with the homosexual Satan and his leftist queer devils". Instead of answering questions, he then just recites some advice: "You should greet people with the word 'Heaven' to make them think about Heaven. Not 'Hello', the greeting which makes them think about Hell." With that, ironically, he says goodbye.
His website reveals that his current title which doesn't appear on the register of candidates is Saint Michael Jesus the Archangel, God the Great Holy Spirit, the Metatron of all, King of the Earth and Sun, Governor of the United Domains Of Heaven, and CEO/Founder of the One World Government United Domains Of Heaven And Earth And One World Religion Catholic And Protestant Christianity. All he needs is Commander in Chief, and he's got the set.