Can a nice guy finish first in the Live Free or Die State? Republican Gary Johnson hopes so. "I'm putting my chips on the table in New Hampshire," the former two-term governor of New Mexico said today at a National Press Club luncheon.
Despite being a no-show in Ames, Iowa, Johnson has rented an office and hired four "young ideologues" as staffers in New Hampshire. If he does well in the New Hampshire primary, "I can last," Johnson said, adding that "you can go from obscurity to prominence with a good showing in Hew Hampshire. It happened to Eugene McCarthy."
More than any other GOP candidate, including media-designated longshots like Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, Johnson is open about his spot at the back of the pack.
"There are 184 [declared] candidates running for president in 2012," Johnson said. "I'm ninth out of 184. You can say, 'What do I need to do to break through?' Or you can say, 'I'm 9th! I'm about to break through!'"
Johnson skipped Ames because he "couldn't afford" the costs of attendance: Buying a booth ($35,000), purchasing tickets to give out to straw poll participants, feeding potential voters, and hiring entertainment. And despite being excluded from debates in New Hampshire and Iowa, Johnson isn't angry.
"I'm not frustrated and I'm not angry," he said. "This is a process and I believe in this process." That process, Johnson says, saw him polling at 2 percent before his first Republican primary in New Mexico, and then winning reelection in a heavily Democratic state.
When pressed by the moderator, Johnson refused to criticize either the GOP, his fellow candidates, or the press. "I have no complaints with the GOP," Johnson said. "It's been great to me. I have no problem with the press either," he added. "It's a process."
Johnson prides himself on having run both his gubernatorial campaigns without once "mentioning my opponent in print, TV, or radio."
The closest Johnson came to taking shots at the rest of the GOP field was when asked about Rick Perry's "Texas miracle" and what makes him different from fellow libertarian-leaning candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
"I love the fact that Texas has such a great economic environment, but it's been that way for a long time," Johnson said about Gov. Perry's economic record.
Of Paul, Johnson would only say that "Dr. [Ron] Paul has had some very principled 'no' votes in Congress." But their "resumes" are significantly different. Johnson repeatedly vetoed legislation passed unanimously by the New Mexico legislature, and says that experience has prepared him to deal with a Congress that will not reduce government spending.
Johnson also ran through his policy positions. "I believe fundamentally in the right for a woman to choose an abortion. I happen to believe in evolution." He said that drug prohibition is the source of "75 percent of the violence" along the U.S.-Mexico border, and that "if we can't connect the dots between prohibition and violence now, I don't know that we ever will." Johnson also dismissed the idea of building a wall (or a fence, or a moat) along the border, and called instead for a simplification of U.S. immigration policy, and for the estimated 12 million undocumented workers currently residing in the United States to receive work visas—"not green cards or citizenship."
"I believe in global warming and that it's man-made," Johnson said. He doesn't however, believe in regulatory schemes to reduce carbon emissions or greenhouse gases, saying that such policies would harm businesses while doing little to help the environment. Besides, he added cheekily, "in the future, the sun will grow to encompass the Earth. Global warming is in our future."
Johnson reiterated that our involvement with Libya was a huge mistake, that the U.S. should leave Iraq and Afghanistan immediately, that the question of who will fill the power vacuums in those two countries will have to be answered sooner or later, and that the U.S. might as well answer it now. He also said that there is no reason the U.S. should have 100,000 troops in Europe, and that he would "have to have the case made to me that we need any troops there at all."
"I would've never established the [Department of Homeland Security] or the [Transportation Security Administration]," Johnson said. "I would've left security to the airlines, and I dare say traveling today would still be as safe."
As for his first act as president, Johnson said that he would not rest until he'd passed a balanced budget. "We went to the moon, we can balance the federal budget."
When he'd finished his speech, Johnson, ever the nice guy, opened the floor "for questions, comments, and any insults you may have."
"Maybe as a result of today," he said at the end of the Q&A, "you'll walk out of here saying, 'He doesn't stand a chance, but I like what he has to say.'"
Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine.