Unorthodox GOP candidate Gary Johnson gets his chance in Orlando debate

Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico and little-known presidential candidate, will get his moment in the spotlight Thursday night at the Republican debate in Orlando, Fla., but he's fully aware of where he stands in the nominee pecking order.

"I'm different," Johnson is quick to admit. "I will be the least known candidate on the stage."

Johnson enjoys a modest but passionate following of fiscal conservatives and social liberals who are drawn to his mixed bag of policy ideas: He wants to legalize marijuana, balance the federal budget, repeal the Democrats' health care law and let gay people marry. He participated in the first Republican debate in May, but didn't receive an invitation to any of the four debates all summer. Since then, his poll number have remained around one percent and his campaign's lackluster fundraising efforts haven't allowed him to participate in the big Republican events such as the straw poll in Ames, Iowa. He knows that he may not get much time to speak on Thursday, so when he gets his chance, he plans to focus on his own ideas, not the other candidates.

"Based on nine candidates up on stage, what am I going to get, two and a half questions? I'm going to have to state in a very succinct and quick way how I'm different from everybody else," he says. "I'm promising to submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013. I am promising to veto expediters that exceed revenue. I believe we should scrap the entire federal tax system and replace it with a Fair Tax."

Johnson, an entrepreneur who built a multi-million dollar construction company in New Mexico during the 1980s and 90s, served two terms as the Republican governor from 1995 to 2003 in a state where Democrats outranked the GOP two to one. He made a name for himself when he vetoed more than 700 spending bills, a third of which came from Republicans.

Depending on the issue, most of his views are either far more conservative than most Republicans and far more liberal than most Democrats, and they don't fit into the traditional coalitions that make for a winning GOP nominee. And Johnson knows it.

On social issues, Johnson is set apart from the other candidates, and that includes fellow libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Johnson splits from Paul in his support for abortion rights, for example, and he's the only Republican candidate debating Thursday who released a statement of support when the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays and lesbians in the military was repealed earlier this week.

"Of all the other candidates on stage, I'm the only social non-conservative out there," Johnson says.

When it comes to the tea party movement, Johnson isn't always a welcomed face. Tea party supporters generally love it when he calls to balance the budget, but he tends to face scorn for his liberal views on marriage, immigration and ending the wars.

"It's a mixed bag," Johnson says of his reception by the tea party movement, pointing out that he was not invited to last week's debate that was co-hosted by Tea Party Express. "If tea partiers are looking for a balanced budget, if they're looking for a fiscal conservative, I'm that person. If they're looking for a social conservative, which a lot of them are, I'm not that person."

Like a good libertarian, when you ask Johnson if he has a favorite president, he'll say he doesn't have one.

"Getting involved in politics has soured my view on my prior heroes," he says.

And, unlike nearly all good Republicans, Johnson says that his disenchantment includes Ronald Reagan.

"Here was my problem with Ronald Reagan at the time that he served: He ran up record deficits. I never thought that would happen, but that's what happened," he says "It happened in a record way."

And when Johnson says he's "different" it's not just because of his political views. Johnson, 58, has somewhat of an athletic streak: He's the only candidate to run 15 marathons, complete four Iron Man competitions, bike across Europe twice and South Africa once, run a 100-mile race and climb Mt. Everest with a broken leg.

His adventures, however, have not left him unscathed. When Johnson stands at the podium Thursday night, he will be doing so with only nine and a half toes--he lost half of his big toe on his left foot to frost bite in Nepal when he climbed Everest. He'll also be more than an inch shorter than he was when he ran for governor in New Mexico as a result of breaking his back twice.

He's also open about his relatively recent marijuana use. When Johnson broke his back the second time in 2005 after a paragliding accident, he was forced to lay on the floor of his home for weeks. He smoked pot for three years to fight the pain.

"It was a tough period. Marijuana helped me deal with that," he said. "It wasn't medical marijuana. I used marijuana illegally. Medical marijuana was not something that was law in New Mexico so my use of marijuana was illicit."

During the recovery period, Johnson built a home in the Taos, New Mexico, where he planned his run for the White House. He set up a nonprofit group called Our American Initiative to promote his ideas in 2009, and announced his candidacy in April.

This campaign, however, will be his last go-round in politics. He's getting married soon, and he looks forward to retreating to the home he built in northern New Mexico at the bottom of a mountain "where the skiing is as good as anywhere in the world."

"It is going to Mt. Everest," he says of his presidential campaign. "That was exciting, exhilarating, it was a grind."

He plans to continue running marathons and climbing mountains, but at least in politics, this will be his final adventure.

"This is it," he says.