The Man from Lincoln, Part 1: You Gotta Give 'Em Hope

This is the first installment in a series of stories about the filmmaker's experience on the campaign trail with Fred Karger, an openly gay candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

The first time I heard it, I knew it didn't sound right, but it didn't sink in until a few months later.

We were on the interstate outside Cedar Rapids just after the 2010 midterms. It was field of dreams territory, and Kevin, Fred's aide, and I were plotting Fred's path to the White House.

With his head buried in his iPhone, Kevin surmised that if all the same-sex couples living in Iowa caucused for Fred, he would beat Rudy Giuliani's '08 vote total by a margin of nearly a 100 percent.

It was an eye opener, and I lost myself in thoughts of bunting and balloon drops out in the dormant fields where my Illinois childhood promised corn as high as an elephant's eye in just a few short months.

And, then I heard it again.

I blinked.

I kept blinking as Kevin protested. I interjected and stammered something that surely made me sound like a kid fresh out of Altoona, Penn. But our fearless leader continued, dismissing Kevin's statistical analysis.

"I'm not delusional. I don't want to get peoples' hopes up."

Did he just say 'hope'?

Evidently, according to Fred Karger, candidate Karger didn't stand a chance of winning anything.

I looked back outside at the frozen dirt rushing by.

What the hell was I doing in Iowa?

* * * * *

When Fred Karger told me he was considering running for president, 2012 was still over two years away. I wasn't surprised. While shooting Saving the Boom, a documentary I'd made about his efforts to save Laguna Beach's anchor gay bar, I learned never to underestimate Fred.

But, this was too good to be true: an openly gay, Jewish Republican -- the guy who'd outed the Mormon Church's backing of Prop. 8 -- going toe to toe with Mitt Romney?

Call me Rielle! Why should John Edwards' videographer-turned-baby-mama have all the fun?

I was in.

* * * * *

One look at my name, and it probably doesn't surprise you. Much like Fred's, my childhood was steeped in political tradition.

We're both from Chicago's North Shore (Fred's from Glencoe, I'm from Highland Park) and had fathers who were precinct captains, though Kennedy, not Eisenhower, was our family's patron saint. If you happened to miss the framed photo of JFK on your way into our house, my Irish Catholic mother made sure you got the message on your way out.

"Keep the faith and vote the straight Democratic ticket!"

But unlike Fred, when I moved west to pursue a career in Hollywood, I stayed in Hollywood, soothing whatever political yearnings I had with episodes of The West Wing and daydreams of dating Anderson Cooper.

Fred, on the other hand, became a protégé of Lee Atwater, Reagan's very own political guru, at whose knee he apprenticed in the fine art of oppositional research, honing a skill set that has made him a master of the Information Age campaign.

"It's all spin!"

And, boy, can he roll it into headlines, from Des Moines to Washington, with little more than a laptop and Wi-Fi connection.

* * * * *

Technically, I was an independent "observer" embedded in the campaign to document the historic nature of the run. But who was I kidding? I had about as much objectivity as any of the opiners currently making noise on cable news. Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn had nothing on me. But, I made a point of deferring to Fred's political acumen. He was the pro. I was there to listen.

So I was surprised when the candidate himself picked me up at the airport. It was Jan. 1, 2012, and I had spent the day flying from Los Angeles to Manchester for the campaign's final push.

As I loaded my camera gear into the back of his Volvo, I was torn between feeling honored by the gesture and anxious about his apparent lack of a schedule. We were two days out from Iowa -- nine from New Hampshire -- and here he was, alone behind the wheel.

As we pulled away from the deserted terminal, his eye caught mine.

I wasn't sure if I saw doubt or gratitude.