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From Nazi uniforms to witchcraft: America's crazy election

By Jonathan Mann, CNN
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Candidate dresses up as a Nazi
  • Rich Iott, a Republican candidate in Ohio, dresses as an Waffen SS officer for historical re-enactments
  • Mann: He joins a growing list of mid-term candidates with surprises swirling around them
  • Christine O'Donnell says she once "dabbled in witchcraft; Carl Paladino, has become known for intemperate outbursts
  • Mann: Personalities make the U.S. seem as much an oversized circus as a super-power

"Our Mann in America" is a weekly column discussing the big talking points in the U.S. for an international audience. Jonathan Mann is an anchor for CNN International and the host of Political Mann.

(CNN) -- If a grown man likes to dress up and pretend he's a Nazi killer, is that a problem?

One candidate in America's upcoming Congressional elections acknowledges the satisfaction he gets from historical re-enactments, drawing attention to both a strange subculture and a surprising twist in Republican Party politics.

"The whole purpose of re-enacting is educating people," Rich Iott, a Republican candidate in the state of Ohio said this week. "This is just another way to communicate a story and keep alive the history of World War Two."

The history of World War Two is just one of several conflicts that Iott says he helped imitate as costume-drama he could enjoy with his son. In that role, he assumed the identity of "Reinhard Pferdmann," a fictitious member of a real division of the Waffen SS, the armed wing of the Nazi Party.

Candidate's Nazi hobby?

Iott's adopted unit was accused of war crimes and once included infamous sadist Joseph Mengele in its ranks. Though re-enactments are fairly common in America, this kind of Nazi playtime is an unusual way for am American parent to raise a child.

Republican Eric Cantor, a Jewish lawmaker who is one of the party's most powerful members of Congress, quickly condemned it. "I would absolutely repudiate that and not support an individual who would do something like that," Cantor said.

Military re-enactment is, to be sure, a popular hobby that appeals to people far beyond American borders. British history buffs re-fight wars of the 17th century. Russian enthusiasts stage the 1812 Battle of Borodino every year, predictably punishing Napoleon every time. (One of them fired the blanks in his gunpowder pistol close enough to CNN correspondent Ivan Watson to damage his hearing).

But re-enactment may be most popular in the U.S., where devotees gather just about every weekend with the distinctive weapons and garb of the Civil War, enjoying or ignoring the gaze of quizzical onlookers on the sidelines.

A lot of Americans are watching from the sidelines now because Iott, an Ohio businessman making his first attempt at elected office, has joined a growing list of candidates with surprises swirling around them.

Several of them are favorites of the Tea Party, an anti-incumbent insurgency that is growing, mostly among Republicans. It is precisely because the Tea Party supports new, untested candidates that some of them have startled the public.

Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell is a self-described religious conservative who acknowledged that she once "dabbled in witchcraft." She is now broadcasting advertisements with an unusual campaign pitch: "I am not a witch."

Carl Paladino, a candidate for governor of New York state, was quickly dubbed "Crazy Carl" in the press for intemperate outbursts and the angry tone of his campaign.

He publicly threatened to "take out Video" a troublesome reporter, using colorful slang to suggest physical assault or worse. But Democrats have nominated a strange candidate of their own: an unemployed and previously unknown figure named Alvin Greene, the party's nominee for the U.S. Senate in South Carolina, whose most remarkable attribute is that he is being prosecuted on pornography charges.

They're the kind of personalities that pop up in American public life from time to time, making the U.S. seem as much an oversized circus as a super-power.

You never have to wait long for the next memorable performance. But there are limits to what the audience will accept. America's Conservatives really are conservative after all, and its Liberals invented a concept called "Political Correctness" to set their own standards for appropriate talk and behavior.

This is a testy time in American life, with all kinds of candidates emerging to express discontent with the country's political class. One of them is denying she was ever really involved in the occult. Another is trying to distance himself from some dirty pictures. Now that we've been introduced to an unapologetic Nazi imitator, you can only wonder who's next.