Libertarian Gary Johnson Is Nearing a Prime-Time Slot

Gary Johnson walks away from a campaign stop in Concord, New Hampshire, August 23, 2011. The former New Mexico governor is running for president on the Libertarian Party ticket. Brian Snyder/Reuters

With Donald Trump plummeting in the polls and Hillary Clinton registering high negatives, the Libertarian Party nominee has a rare opportunity to be the first person outside the two party system to participate in the presidential debates since Ross Perot did so in 1992--a potentially groundbreaking moment that could alter the presidential race.

That opportunity has been underscored by a new Fox News poll that shows the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee, Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, getting 12 percent support. A party qualifies to join a presidential debate if it scores 15 percent in a series of polls leading up to the fall forums.

In addition to the attraction of being someone other than Clinton or Trump, Johnson is helped by his running mate, William Weld of Massachusetts, who like himself is a former Republican two-term governor of a Democratic state. Both men have a certain charm: Johnson is a triathlete who has climbed the highest peaks on all continents and Weld is an old-line Boston Brahmin who once dove fully clothed into the city's Charles River to show its cleanliness. Pro-abortion and anti-Common Core, they're libertarian without heeding some of the party's more extreme freedom-loving, anarchistic elements. (At the party's convention this spring, Johnson had to defend his belief in driver's licenses and anti-discrimination laws.)

During their second CNN town hall this summer on Wednesday night, both men were in full form, eschewing ideological straightjackets and offering some humor along the way. Weld, wearing the kind of thick pinstripe suit eschewed by modern pols, said Trump had a "screw loose" and cited two Franklin Roosevelt appointees to the Supreme Court, William O. Douglas and Hugo Black, as the kind of justices he'd look for.

For his part, Johnson took shots at Trump's nativism: "We should be embracing immigration. We shouldn't be talking about restricting it. And then when [Trump] talks about killing the families of Muslim terrorists, when he talks about free trade but in the next sentence he says, 'I'm going to force Apple to make their iPads and their iPhones in the United States,' and that we should apply a 35 percent tariff on imported goods, well, who pays for that?"

Johnson, who was a longtime marijuana user but says he's stopped at least through the election and would abstain as president, encouraged more medical research into the benefits and costs of the drug.

Both men used the town hall to take their best shots at luring Bernie Sanders supporters. "Well, I think Bernie and I are similar on about 75 percent of what's out there," Johnson said. "And, of course, that would be marriage equality, a woman's right to choose, legalizing marijuana, let's stop with the military interventions."

Weld appealed to traditional Republicans, citing his experience in the Reagan Justice Department as well as his appearance at previous GOP conventions which could occasionally be a mixed bad. The 71-year-old has a tendency to walk down memory lane in a way that may seem like a distant soujourn to younger voters, such as when Weld cited Reagan's first CIA director, William Casey, and his preference for "humint" (human intelligence sources), or offered recollections of the 1996 Republican Convention as if it took place yesterday instead of 20 years ago.

Both men know that their presence in the debates is essential for having a shot in the presidential race or even doing better than the mere 1 percent Johnson scored as the party's nominee in 2012. The 63-year-old is blunt: "There's no chance of winning without being in the presidential debates…the first presidential debate is going to garner more audience than the Super Bowl," he said during the town hall. "Well you can't win the presidency if you're not in that game."

One thing that Johnson takes into the game is a refreshingly self-effacing style. CNN's Anderson Cooper noted that Johnson repeatedly used phrases like "I might be wrong" and was willing to acknowledge past error. For instance, when asked about Black Lives Matter, Johnson didn't offer a cocksure answer, instead saying the police shootings that led to its eruption on the American political scene had been a rude awakening not just for the country but for him personally. "What it has done for me is, is that my head's been in the sand on this," he said. "That's what it's done for me. And that I think we've all had our head's in the sand and let's wake up. This discrimination does exist, it has existed and for me personally, you know, slap, slap, wake up."

Weld is equally slap slap. At their June town hall, he praised Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, having known the former for years starting in 1974 in their work as young staffers for the House committee charged with impeaching Richard Nixon. On Wednesday night, Weld was tougher on his old pal, especially when it came to spending and taxes, but like Johnson he emphasized centrism and bipartisanship and avoided Republican red-meat attack lines like Benghazi and the emails. (The rude and hale Weld also offered some candor about his struggle with his weight, even noting that he'd hit 235 pounds before getting back under a deuce.)

Johnson, who has Celiac disease and so keeps gluten-free, vowed that his "partner-fiancee" Kate Prusack, who he met during a bike race in Sante Fe, will keep up Michelle Obama's garden. If all of this bipartisanship worries hard-core libertarians, they can take note that on Johnson and Prusack's first date, he gave her a copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story suggested that the Libertarian Party nominee participated in the 1992 debates. That was not the case.