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Michigan holds its Republican presidential primary next Tuesday, and Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are traveling the state and crowding its airwaves.

But a lesser-known candidate is plotting a minor upset. His name is Fred Karger and he is the first openly gay GOP presidential candidate. Karger hopes the state's primary rules will land him a mid-Michigan miracle and some delegates to the GOP's national convention.

Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio has that story.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: You know Fred Karger. OK, you probably don't know Fred Karger. In fact, his campaign slogan is: Fred Who? The retired California businessman has had a lot of trouble getting to share a stage with the other Republicans running.

FRED KARGER: Had I gotten on an earlier debate, things might be very different because there's this lack of cohesion around a certain candidate. So I'm hopeful that still, as the field narrows, that I could get into a debate and then everything could change.

PLUTA: Karger has filed complaints against Fox News for shutting him out of an early debate in Iowa, and against the American Conservative Union for refusing him a spot at its annual convention.

As a pro-choice, openly gay Republican, Karger acknowledges he's not in the GOP mainstream these days. In fact, he's not really appealing to Republicans to vote in the Republican primary. Any registered voter can cast a ballot in the GOP contest.

KARGER: I am appealing, number one, to Obama supporters. A little unethical, a little unprecedented strategy for a Republican. But, as a moderate centrist who actually is to the left of Obama on certain social issues - like full equality, gay marriage, things like that - I am appealing to them and my message is, you know, Obama is unopposed - literally unopposed. Vote for Fred Karger. Grab a Republican ballot. Make some history.

PLUTA: Karger thinks Michigan's primary rules give him that opening to - as he says - make history. Michigan's primary is actually a bunch of smaller contests. Most of the state's 30 National Convention delegates will be determined by winner-take-all congressional district primaries.

KARGER: So my focus - and this, I don't think has been done - is just in this district.

PLUTA: This district is Michigan's 8th Congressional District in the center of the state, home to Michigan State University, where he's spent a lot of time.

KARGER: I'm running for president of the United States, independent Republican on the February 28th ballot, so if you'd consider voting for me, check out my website.

PLUTA: Karger is doing a walk-through at a food court on the Michigan State campus, shaking hands and passing out campaign souvenirs.

KARGER: Oh, wow. Thank you.

PLUTA: Samantha Wilson was intrigued enough to do a quick check of Karger's website on her SmartPhone before dashing over for a brief conversation.

SAMANTHA WILSON: The first thing I read was first openly gay Republican candidate.

PLUTA: Wilson is a Democrat, but says, now that she's met him, a primary vote for Karger is a possibility.

Karger's low budget campaign does include a TV ad airing in a relatively affordable market.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fed up with the Republicans running for president?

(SOUNDBITE OF WOMAN SCREAMING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, there's one candidate you just might like.

KARGER: It's done in a very strategic way. We do things - just everything the big campaigns do, but we do it on a much smaller scale here.

PLUTA: Political campaigns used to be Karger's business. His resume includes working on Republican presidential campaigns, going back to Gerald Ford's in 1976. He supported Hillary Clinton four years ago, but could not bring himself to vote for Barack Obama in the general election. He cast his ballot for Ralph Nader.

Karger says he knows he's more than a long shot and acknowledges his strategy is unconventional. Other political professionals agree.

DAVID DOYLE: I can't remember the last time I've seen this.

PLUTA: David Doyle is a campaign consultant who once served as the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. He says Karger is being vastly outspent by the other candidates and their superPACs in the one TV market where his ad is playing.

DOYLE: And, in this election, the overwhelming majority of voters in the Republican primary are concerned about jobs and the economy, deficit spending and taxes. Social issues are relatively low on the list.

PLUTA: Win or lose here, Karger plans to apply his Michigan strategy to other states that will dole out delegates by congressional district. He's on the ballot in half a dozen states and he's still trying to get on some more in hopes of picking up some delegates. He says even just a few would help him get into future debates and maybe get him some attention at the Republican convention in Tampa this summer.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta in East Lansing, Michigan.

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