An exaggeratedly bearded man with a boot on his head is attacking former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson with a giant toothbrush in Orlando. Johnson is taking it in stride.
It takes, one imagines, a sense of humor to run for the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party and Johnson mugs along as the living national political satire who calls himself Vermin Supreme forces Johnson to admit he would give zombies the right to vote.
After shouting to the phalanx of TV cameras circling Johnson that this stance was clearly ridiculous, Supreme announces his name loudly and says "I am not representative of the Libertarian Party!"
I'm still not sure where Johnson thinks he was going, but he stops every few feet to talk to friendly delegates. I can't always hear what he says, but once overheard him pressing a woman: "Are you on board with Bill Weld?
Long, drawn-out, hesitant: "I don't know…."
Eventually Johnson finds himself fully hemmed in by press on all sides and answers some questions for a few minutes, from me and other reporters, TV and print.
We had passed a heated discussion on how to wind down the drug war. I ask Johnson about what he thinks of decriminalization vs. legalization.
"If you decriminalize [possession], you still have to buy. So if you decriminalize both sale and consumption, that works."
Would he prefer a legalized/regulated solution, like with alcohol and tobacco? That might not be better, he says, but "it's more realistic. Right now the worst example [of how to deal with legal pot] is Washington state. They really screwed things up in a big way. Clearly Colorado got it better, not that they have it right, but they are way ahead."
As always, Johnson says that he believes if he and Weld get the nomination tomorrow and get in the polls, they'll get the 15 percent they need in five separate polls to get in the debates, then money and votes will follow. I ask if there's anything specific he thinks they can do to get in the polls.
"No, and that may be part of the conspiracy." I chuckle at that word. "Genuinely!" Johnson says. "Democrats and Republicans, when it come to major polls, they may sign documents or contribute mightily to other polls that these organizations conduct, not presidential polls, but gee if you are going to include Gary Johnson in your national polls, millions of dollars of revenue from other polls may go away."
Does he think New Mexico's sitting governor, Susana Martinez, recently feuding with Donald Trump, might come out for her predecessor, another reporter asks? No, Johnson says. She's too dedicated to fighting the alleged scourge of marijuana. "She's made a name for herself opposing me on legalizing marijuana. It's not going to happen. She demonizes marijuana, calls it a gateway drug, you are going to lose your mind if you do that and I'm going to arrest you and put you in jail, because that's really helping you," Johnson says. "I don't want to presume what she'll do. She could pull the Constitution Party candidate lever," Johnson said, but made it clear after multiple inquiries that he knows she won't support him.
Another reporter asks him if he's regretting the choice of William Weld as his running mate, in the face of Libertarian opposition. "Not to take anything away from any other candidate [for vice president], but going forward I'd be handicapped 50 percent without Bill Weld—the attention he garners, the credibility he brings, the fact that he's been my role model to me my entire life…."
The reporter points out aspects of Weld's Republican/Brahmin past that rub some Libertarian activists the wrong way. He's friends with George Bush! He had a great uncle in the CIA!
"And now he's a Libertarian!" Johnson says. He would hope Weld's conventional worldliness would be a plus. "His knowledge of this stuff [governing] is unsurpassed. I would hope people would view that as an asset."
In an earlier press conference, one reporter says, he thought the Johnson/Weld interplay seemed rough, a bit awkward.
"We are intending our presentation to be rough," Johnson says. "We'll be honest and disagree with each other. It's an open kind of relationship. We're not going to be polished."
He makes another pitch for Weld's qualities. "We need to have people really smart, knowledgeable in that context. We are all pulling for smaller government, all pulling for civil liberties and individual rights" but Libertarians should recognize that "nothing is as clear cut" in governing as it might seem in philosophy."
When a reporter suggests Weld's basic retail political skills seem rough in this Libertarian context, Johnson defends him: "He's been plucked and put in the middle of a bee hive and I think he's doing remarkably." Johnson thinks Weld's ability to navigate the particular Libertarian environment has been getting better and better since he announced his candidacy. "When I take three or four days off [from face to face politics], I come back rusty," Johnson says.
I ask if he's prepared to make a specific reality check plea to the Libertarian delegates if Johnson wins the presidential nomination tomorrow, before their separate vote on the vice president, to explain why he needs them to give him Weld.
"I will not be elected president of the United States if Bill Weld is not my vice presidential pick. It's not going to happen. It's just that simple."
Johnson really thinks the Party faithful misunderstand Weld. To Johnson, when he was coming up in the 1990s, he felt that "he was saying all this [Libertarian] stuff before anyone else" not already in the Party. "He had the highest elected office saying these same things Libertarians were saying." Johnson is correct that even many in the libertarian movement outside the Party saw Weld as their greatest hope in the major parties when he governed Massachusetts.
Would he just give up the whole thing if he doesn't get Weld, Johnson is asked?
He repeats the wonders of Weld's resume, his gravitas, the media and political attention he gets. It's like this, Johnson says: "I've been training for the marathon, and I just broke my leg. Will I run the marathon tomorrow?"
A small hush. Reporters think this is a confession of being prepared to bow out if he doesn't get his Weld. He's not going that far, Johnson insists. "I'm not saying that. I just want to put my best foot forward, OK? I've worked so hard and Bill Weld is a choice that exceeds my wildest expectations."
He's asked about money, and he reiterates his absolute lack of interest in being the guy who makes personal asks of donors. Weld will be good at that, he says. He knows nothing specific about big money that might line up behind Johnson-Weld if they win the Libertarian nomination tomorrow, but his people tell him there is some of it out there, interested. Even in his first governor campaign in the '90s, he says, he just spent over half a million of his own money rather than beg for it. "I'm incapable of that," he says about personal fundraising.
Bernie Sanders fans, he says, would likely find themselves attracted to him if they check out the "Isidewith" site, in which, as Johnson likes to say, he matches the socialist Democrat 73 percent, on social and foreign policy issues and opposition to bailout and crony capitalism for the well-connected.
Will he actively court "nevertrumps" from the GOP side? The Zen candidate doesn't think it matters. "It doesn't work when you go out and court. It works when they are interested. In my life it never works that way. There has to be an interest on their side."
When a young lady holding a sign for the Libertarian ticket of John McAfee and Judd Weiss is trying to squeeze her way in, Johnson gamely ushers her into the camera's eye to make sure her sign is seen among all the Johnson signs that materialized behind him while he answered questions. In a moment, a lot of people are asking her questions, at Johnson's suggestion, and Johnson slips away for his next TV appearance away from the scrum.
The TV reporter asks him about hardcore activist complaints that he and Weld are just "Republican lite."
"I'm outraged by that," Johnson says, though sounding pretty mellow as he always does. "I'm not Republican lite. I'm a Libertarian, and I've been libertarian my entire life."