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Gary Johnson 2.0: the Libertarians’ new choice for president

Chris Moody, Yahoo News
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Gary Johnson (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Gary Johnson is back. You might remember him best as the scrappy long-shot Republican presidential candidate who made a "dog poop" joke from the far end of the debate stage in Florida last year. Perhaps his name rings a bell as the only Republican not named Ron Paul who supported marijuana decriminalization. Or maybe you recall that he's a superathlete and superthrifty: He climbed Mount Everest and vetoed more than 700 spending bills over his two terms as governor of New Mexico.

In December, Johnson shook off his official affiliation with Republicans when he joined the Libertarian Party. Over the weekend, the organization nominated him as its candidate for president.

And now that Johnson is no longer affiliated with the GOP, the usually soft-spoken, unassuming politician has come forward guns a-blazing.

With a tougher tone and a sharper message delivery, the 59-year-old has re-emerged as a rabble-rousing attack dog. One of his pithier retorts: If he were put on a torture rack and told to endorse either President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, he'd choose death.

"Take this to the bank," Johnson said at his acceptance speech at the Libertarian Party convention in Las Vegas last weekend. "I would rather die."

Although Johnson is not in a position to ascend to the presidency this year, early polls suggest he could play a spoiler role. A February Public Policy Polling survey showed Johnson polling at 7 percent nationally, with even higher levels of support in Western states like Montana and New Mexico, which means he could shift the states' Electoral College votes to Obama.

Stealing the election from Romney doesn't bother Johnson, as his comments make clear. There's not a lick of difference between Obama and Romney in his eyes.

"Pick Obama, pick Romney, government's going to be bigger," Johnson told Yahoo News in a phone interview from his home in Taos, New Mexico. "Government's going to be more intrusive."

Strategically, Johnson is forgoing a grass-roots campaign and concentrating instead on national media attention to gain traction.

"The focus will always be on most bang for no bucks," Johnson said. "Most time will be spent on the phone with someone like yourself."

With his name already slated to be on every state ballot in the country in November, the next step is to be included in more national polls so he can work toward achieving the 15 percent needed for eligibility in the Presidential Commission debates with Obama and Romney, a goal even he admits is far-fetched.

"The pie-in-the-sky scenario here for actually winning the race is to be on the debate stage with Obama and Romney," said Johnson.

After all, the debates are where he can shine, he insists. Since his political ideology doesn't fit into the traditional platform of either party—Johnson supports gay marriage and abortion access, but also calls for slashing government spending and lowering taxes—he intends to hit Obama from the left and Romney from the right.

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"I got a leg up on Obama when it comes to civil liberties," Johnson said. "I crush Obama when it comes to dollars and cents. I think I have a leg up on Romney when it comes to dollars and cents, and I think I crush him on civil liberties."

For his ground game, Johnson has a small staff of about 25 full-time campaign employees, some of whom work for free. To coordinate his message, he has enlisted the services of Roger Stone, veteran Republican strategist and former Nixonite, and Christopher Barron, chairman of the conservative gay organization GOProud. The team is banking on receiving as much as $5 million in matching federal election funds, and plans to capitalize on Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul's legion of passionate supporters once he steps out of the Republican race.

"Any right-leaning marketing person in the world knows how to take $5 million in seed money and turn it into $15 million," Stone told Yahoo News. "It's just not that hard, particularly once the Ron Paul candidacy comes to an end. Johnson will have both message and resources."

Johnson does not expect an endorsement from Paul, a politician with whom he shares near identical public policy views. But he's counting on Paul followers to boost his support, assuming many will refuse to vote for Obama or Romney come November.

"The way I see it, most Ron Paul supporters will have no place else to go," said Stephen Gordon, a political consultant who has worked as a spokesman for the Libertarian Party. "A lot of Ron Paul supporters, no matter where they live, are going to vote for Johnson."

As Johnson puts it, referring to Paul supporters: "You're not sacrificing a thing by having me as an alternative."

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