By Mark Z. Baraback \ June 13, 2012 3:03 am

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Fred Karger failed.

There were 20 Republican presidential debates and not one featured the California political-strategist-turned-openly-gay-White-House-hopeful, although he came close — or at least should have — to qualifying for a session last summer, if only Fox News hadn’t changed the rules.

Or so he says. The Federal Election Commission, after reviewing Karger’s complaint, disagreed and found no evidence of wrongdoing. Karger returned this week from a campaign swing through Utah to find the FEC response in a pile of mail at his home in the Hollywood Hills.

Karger has devoted more than two years of his life to his quixotic White House bid, visiting 31 states and Puerto Rico, where, he exulted, “I beat Ron Paul.” He has spent close to $500,000 out of pocket and, for all his effort, collected precisely zero delegates.

Unlike some of the more delusional candidates who have run, Karger never thought he would become president.  His overriding purpose, Karger said in a profile last year, was to appear in at least one debate, sharing a stage with the rest of the Republican field and sending, he hoped, a message to anyone growing up the way he did: confused, conflicted and shamed about his sexual orientation.

“I want to send the message to gay younger people and older people and everyone in between that you can do anything you want in life, and don’t feel bad about yourself and don’t feel you have to live your life the way I did,” Karger said at the time. Now 62, he did not come out publicly until he was 56.

Although he never made it to the debate stage, Karger said his effort was worth every minute and every penny.

“Absolutely!” he exclaimed in a telephone interview from his home overlooking Laurel Canyon.  “Without a doubt!”

Karger, who spent 30 years as a political advisor to several top Republicans and major corporations, still talks as if a conversation is a pitch meeting with a potential new client.

“This is money I would have spent anyway,” he said. “Instead of going maybe to Australia for a vacation, I went to Des Moines 15 times. It was money well spent. The response, the emails I’ve gotten have been very, very moving and supportive.”

Regrets? He has a few.

The gay community never rallied behind his campaign, or took up his cause. The Victory Fund, which works to elect openly gay and lesbian candidates — mostly Democrats — gave him a months-long runaround before finally snubbing his campaign, Karger said. “And six or seven years ago,” he huffed, “I had a fund-raiser for them in my house.”

A spokesman for the organization said as a policy matter the group does not discuss candidates it declines to support.

For all the progress the country has made on gay rights, Karger went on, it still has a long way to go. Just before he left Utah on Monday, he had a friendly chat over custard with Willie Billings, the chairman of the Washington County Republican Party, and gave him a souvenir T-shirt and Frisbee. (Utah wraps up the presidential nominating season with its primary June 26.)

Soon after, riding home to California in a balky rental van, Karger received an email from Billings’ wife, Nanette, calling him a “radical idiot” and informing the candidate his campaign swag had been deposited in the trash.

“I would never support him,” Nanette Billings said in an interview — nor, for that matter, any openly gay or lesbian candidate.  The biggest issue is they can’t procreate,” she said, “so I think it’s totally wicked.”

Karger, who has crusaded against the Mormon Church for its efforts to outlaw same-sex marriage, will not back Mitt Romney because the likely GOP nominee shares that opposition.  Karger is not sure, however, that he will vote for President Obama, though he was lavish in praising his support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry.

“I think back what to it was like for me as a teenager” in the 1960s, Karger said, and the efect it would have had for the president of the United States to voice that kind of support for gay rights.

As his campaign nears a close, Karger is left to ponder the might-have-beens. What if he’d been allowed to join the other candidates in front of the national TV cameras in just one of those 20 debates?

“Anything could have happened,” he said, laughing. “I could have been the gay Herman Cain!”

He paused.

“Without all the groping.”