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Libertarian hopeful Gary Johnson gets warm welcome in chilly Alaska

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Loren Holmes photo

Even though Alaska has a relatively strong Libertarian Party, former two-term New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson’s face isn't readily recognizable to many in the state. So it was surprising to this reporter when a young man walked up to his table at the Midtown Anchorage Village Inn, where Johnson was munching on a cobb salad, to shake his hand and thank him for running for president of the United States.

Johnson, however, didn't seem surprised. He's experiencing this more and more often as he crisscrosses the country, trying to gain traction for his quixotic campaign.

In a few days it's onto Nevada, and then maybe to Oregon and Idaho to drum up support. For now, though, it's Alaska -- or in his words, "Holy cow, the Great Frontier."

He said this with his eyes wide, his vowels drawn out. Johnson's running mate Jim Gray, who visited Alaska last month, has more of a politician's typical demeanor. Johnson, however, looks and sounds more like a Midwestern Boy Scout leader who recently fled to the Rocky Mountains to solve a mid-life crisis than a popular two-term governor who's the national figurehead for what is colloquially called the "pot party."

But then again, there is much in Johnson's background and ideas that defies his casual demeanor. For one, he started a construction company in the 1970s that eventually employed more than 2,000 people -- among the biggest of such companies in New Mexico. He later sold the company, which made him a millionaire.

As a Republican governor from 1995-2003, he turned against many in his party by vetoing 750 bills, more than all other New Mexico governors combined, and left New Mexico with a budget surplus and with the people on his side.

Johnson is a competitive athlete, cycling at least 13,000 miles year, he figures. He doesn't drink, smoke pot or anything else, yet he's for legalizing drugs. He's for cutting all spending, including on Medicaid and Medicare. He's pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and pro-school vouchers. He's against the U.S. Department of Education, gun control and an over-reaching military. He opposes federal overreach into state business.

His ideas neither fit easily into an ideological box nor do they necessarily make for easy TV news sound bites.

Yet Johnson is still widely popular in New Mexico. So popular, in fact, that after he threw his hat into the presidential race (initially as a Republican), he polled better in his home state than other candidates did in their respective home states.

Perhaps not surprising to Alaska, the same poll showed Sarah Palin as being the least popular.

But despite that home state support, and even though libertarianism ideology is on the rise, Johnson hasn't been able to ignite a national groundswell. And he needs some of that groundswell if he's going to be able to debate President Obama and Mitt Romney, which he says is imperative to keep the campaign alive.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has decided that in order to get a place in the debate, a candidate must receive 15 percent of electoral support in at least five national polls.

It's a steep threshold for a candidate many pollsters won't include on national polls. Currently, Johnson's only polling about 5 percent. But this doesn't seem to deter the mountain climber who's reached the top of Mount Elbrus and Denali.

Friday, Johnson hit the Anchorage conservative talk show circuit and met with Mayor Dan Sullivan. Saturday there's a rally on the Delaney Park Strip downtown at 10 a.m. Then, the more gun-loving libertarians are taking him shooting.

Johnson's not necessarily a gun enthusiast, but he's game. "I know how to shoot," he said. "I know how to shoot straight."

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com