Gary Johnson says he’s trying to keep a low profile.
The former governor of New Mexico is wearing Nike sneakers and jeans in a coffee shop in Cleveland outside the security perimeter of the Quicken Loans Arena where the Republican National Convention is being held, and says he ditched the tie he wore yesterday to look even more unassuming today.
“I didn’t want to come, I really didn’t,” Johnson tells TIME of the convention. “And being here, I really want to keep the lowest profile possible. I really want to be respectful. I want to be respectful of the Republican National Convention and I want to be respectful of Trump winning the nomination.”
Johnson wants to respect RNC boundaries because it’s a party he’s now challenging for the presidency, running as a Libertarian. (He was a member of the Republican Party when he served as governor from 1995 to 2003.) But he’s been underwhelmed so far by the perception that most convention speeches have focused on attacking Hillary Clinton rather than promoting Donald Trump.
“It’s a lost opportunity to actually tell us, what do you stand for, Republicans?” Johnson says.
Of course, he didn’t exactly want to keep a low profile; he came to the convention to drum up media attention. “The idea here is to win this, but the only chance of winning is to be in the presidential debates,” he says of raising his poll numbers to the point where he would be automatically included.
But he does seem genuinely surprised by the Johnson fans that have come out of the woodwork in Cleveland. Before we spoke, he did a quick television hit outside the coffee shop, which was interrupted by people wanting to take selfies with him. By the time the camera stopped rolling, ten or so people were gathered on the sidewalk to watch, barely blinking when Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s motorcade blocked traffic and let the President pro tempore of the United States Senate out right beside them.
“At least a dozen people with ‘Trump for President’ buttons on said they were going to vote for me,” Johnson says. He says he gave more than 70 media interviews yesterday and estimates that hundreds of people have also pledged their support to him this week.
Among other issues, Johnson wants to raise the retirement age for Social Security, abolish the I.R.S., scale down the military and, of course, legalize marijuana. (He’s the former CEO of a marijuana products company) “I’ve always maintained that you shouldn’t show up on the job impaired,” Johnson says of his decision to swear off pot while running for (and potentially as) president.
In 2012, Johnson also ran as a Libertarian, but got just about 1% of the vote. This year, with the momentum he’s seen in evidence at the convention, Johnson believes he could win some states outright. He lists Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and Alaska as options, and says his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, could help with more states in the East. In some recent national surveys, the Johnson/Weld ticket has cracked double digit support.
And he says that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s decision not to endorse Trump Wednesday night was, in fact, an endorsement for him.
“That was a backhanded Johnson endorsement,” he says. “‘Vote your conscience,’ but OK, so you go into the voting booth, it’s not an essay on vote your conscience. It’s multiple choice.”
For now, Johnson’s immediate goal is being included in debates with Trump and Clinton. When asked how he would handle an unpredictable Trump on the debate stage, Johnson laughs. “I think the unpredictable is going to be Johnson,” he says. “Johnson is the comet here when it comes to the dinosaur two-party thing. Boom!”
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