One of America’s most unusual presidential campaign outposts sits at the end of a quiet cove on Lake Wylie.
From the water, the first thing you notice is the lawn, where “Rocky 2016” is spelled out in dozens of orange life jackets.
Scattered around are life-size mannequins made from wetsuits stuffed with attic insulation, all wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan. A drone occasionally hovers overhead taking pictures.
This is the local headquarters of Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente, a California businessman, Democratic presidential candidate – and optimist.
Nevermind that he didn’t fare well in Tuesday’s primaries. He finished last in North Carolina with 3,351 votes. He also came in last in Illinois and Ohio, the other states where he was on Tuesday’s ballot.
Last month in New Hampshire, he finished ninth, behind not only Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton but a candidate named Vermin Supreme.
“This is a marathon, a 56K marathon,” De La Fuente, 61, said this week. “The finish line is Nov. 8. That’s when the American people decide.”
De La Fuente, who disputes many of his vote totals, is one of hundreds of relatively obscure Americans who have filed to run for president. But he’s the only one who has succeeded in getting on the ballot in nearly two dozen states.
“Among the people who nobody ever heard of, he’s probably doing better at getting on Democratic primary ballots than anybody in history,” said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News.
Over $2 million spent
De La Fuente, with swept-back gray hair, has rented the house in southwest Charlotte through the middle of May, and again from September through November. Not far from the airport, he uses it as a regional base, a convenient jumping off point.
The walls in one room are covered with marked-up maps of the United States. This week, De La Fuente was poring over them, showing a reporter what he claims is a path to victory in November.
Thinking big is nothing new for the San Diego businessman.
De La Fuente made a fortune in the automobile, finance and real estate industries. He fought for and won the right to erect a 22-story pole that flies a 3,000-square-foot American flag over one of his San Diego car dealerships. He claims it’s the tallest free-standing flag pole in America.
He has loaned his presidential campaign over $2 million, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Nearly $500,000 went to a Michigan company that collects the petition signatures that have helped him get on many state ballots.
This year he has rented mobile digital billboards that show campaign videos. Last month he hired a digital skywriting company to write “Rocky De La Fuente 4 President” above San Francisco’s Super Bowl City.
He has said he’s running to give a voice to Hispanics. Though his website gives only general policy positions, he has called for streamlining the military and views undocumented immigrants as “assets” to a growing economy.
Apps and dinghys
De La Fuente mixes strategy and whimsy. His staff goes beyond the usual mix of advisers.
Those in Charlotte this week included a cartoonist and video producers who are filming a Star Wars-inspired series featuring people from outer space called “Rockians.” Dressed like the outdoor mannequins, they talk up the candidate with earthlings.
There’s also a phone app called “Rocky Run,” as well as plans to form a flotilla of dinghys that will carry his mannequins up and down Lake Wylie.
By any reasonable measure, De La Fuente faces a steep climb to the White House.
“People are not going to vote in a highly contested primary for somebody they never heard of,” said Winger, who studies such candidates.
De La Fuente insists he can win. In any case, he enjoys the challenge.
“I am the most excited person I have ever been in my life,” he said. “I’m gonna win. It’s that simple.”