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Consumer Reports

An artist's political wit, fit for a button | (KRT) DETROIT — Seen those "No C.A.R.B. Diet: No Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Bush" buttons? Or the Kerry flip-flop ones?

Thank - or blame - Mitch Kuhn. His West Bloomfield, Mich., family room is the cluttered heart and soul of a hand-made homespun political button business with coast-to-coast clientele.

It's a long way from 1988, when an unemployed Kuhn sat in a sweltering KOA campground in Georgia in a beat-up Volkswagen van with a borrowed button-stamping machine and $30 in his pocket.

"It was the Democratic convention in Atlanta, and I was out on the street selling buttons and staying at the KOA. No air conditioning. No money to get home, and I thought to myself, `I hope this works out.'"

He left town with $8,000 and a new full-time profession that seemed more fun than work.

Now he's the frenetic man-in-demand, a witty, self-described political geek who spends hours hunched on a burgundy pillow atop a tiny footstool.

"My favorite footstool," notes his wife and partner in political fun, Dru Diedrich.

In front of the stool, a stamping machine churns out buttons for as long as Kuhn is willing to feed it the components - one, after another, after another, after another. The machine can stamp up to 600 buttons per hour, assuming Kuhn can keep pace.

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And there are war injuries - bloodletting from the stickpins is common, and his left ring finger is permanently clenched tight against his palm, the result of tendon damage from years of working on older, less automated machines.

"It can be fixed with surgery, but I just haven't had the time," Kuhn said. It's been eight years.

Every day, he ships thousands of buttons for clients from the fringes of each ideological wing and everywhere in between.

And since it's a presidential election year, his wife has hidden the toy pirate ships.

"He likes to play pirates," said Diedrich, jerking her thumb in Kuhn's direction and rolling her eyes. "If I didn't put them away, he'd never get anything done."

Kuhn shrugs.

He's 56. He has a stream behind his home, an electric train kit he sometimes sets up in the back yard, and a passion for pulling the humor out of politics and sticking it on 3-inch button.

He never grew up. And he doesn't have to.

"I already knew he was a flaky artist," said Diedrich, a commercial real estate broker who married Kuhn in 1992 and loves politics as much as he does. "But when I found out he was a politics and news junkie, too ..."

A match made in heaven.

The "No C.A.R.B. Diet" button was Diedrich's idea, and this year's best-seller with 15,000 already shipped. He's modified it for the Republicans: "Pro C.A.R.B. Diet" and put out a version with an added kicker for Democrats: "and absolutely no Rice."

Strewn about the couple's ranch house are dozens of other 2004 designs, ranging from the traditional "Bush-Cheney" and "Kerry-Edwards" that he'll be hawking on the floors of the parties' national conventions later this summer.

There are also originals including:

"Like father like son: One term and you're done" (with pictures of both President Bushes).

"Regime change begins at home" (photo of Bush).

"Kerry flip flop" (with alternating right-side-up/upside-down photos of Kerry).

And no political junkie will ever forget his classics, including the "Dead Man Running" anti-Dick Posthumus button (Posthumus. Dead man. Get it?) in the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial election and the "Nuke the Duke" anti-Michael Dukakis pin in the 1988 presidential election.

He also had a field day during President Bill Clinton's - ahem - troubles, like: "It takes a village to satisfy Bill Clinton" and others that don't meet the standards of a family newspaper.

But he's turned down plenty of disgusting requests for really nasty buttons and believes he can judge the energy of a campaign by the button business.

This year, the presidential election is as vibrant as it's ever been. Business is brisk - not like it was when Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton in 1996: "When Bob Dole ran, nobody cared. Nobody called," Kuhn said.

"But this year, this will be the best year ever."

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© 2004, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services