DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — Despite two terms as governor of New Mexico and recent visits to 26 states, most Americans have never heard of Gary Johnson.
The former Republican governor is mulling a run for president, and his libertarian views and small government platform fit the disenchantment many voters feel toward Washington. Among his supporters is Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul, who drew a committed following in his 2008 campaign for president and was quoted in the conservative online website The Daily Caller as saying if he didn’t run again in 2012, the best candidate would be Johnson.
Johnson says he knows most people have never heard of him, but he’s hoping to change that.
“There are two courses of action. One would be to do nothing and the other would be to burn some shoe leather and see what happens,” Johnson told The Associated Press during a recent stop in Davenport. “I’m burning some shoe leather.”
Johnson, who served as governor from 1994 to 2002, supports slashing government spending, including big cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He also calls for simplifying and reducing taxes.
Those stands might please many Republicans, but some would likely bristle at his opposition to the war in Iraq or his support for cutting defense spending, legalizing marijuana, expanding legal immigration and legalizing civil unions for gays and lesbians.
Asked whether he planned to seek the Republican nomination for president, Johnson said he couldn’t comment because of the nonprofit status of the group financing his travels, called Our America Initiative. But he was quick to note that former Sen. Fred Thompson also formed a nonprofit to finance his travel before eventually entering the GOP race in the last campaign.
“Sure, he’d be a dark horse, but I think he’d be a pretty substantial dark horse,” said Myron Ebell, director of Freedom Action, a Washington-based group that advocates for limited government. “I think he’s a legitimate long-shot candidate. I think he has a lot to offer.”
Johnson certainly sounds like a candidate, and he’s made two extended visits to Iowa and four trips to New Hampshire.
“The fact that Iowa is the earliest caucus state, along with New Hampshire, Iowa ends up being a state that determines the mood or the direction for the rest of the states,” he said.
Johnson said he reached his view on marijuana legalization after a cost-benefit analysis left him convinced that the current system is a costly failure that jams up prisons. He argued drugs should be dealt with as a health issue, not a legal matter.
He found a receptive audience at a midweek gathering of about a dozen people in the basement meeting room of a Davenport restaurant.
“I think it’s always nice to hear a more thorough, reflective platform as opposed to platitudes,” said Jesse Anderson, of LeClaire.
Diane Holst, of Eldridge, agreed. “He shares my values and my opinions,” she said.
Iowa has a history of giving a boost to little-known candidates, most notably rewarding former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter with a surprising caucus victory in 1976 after he campaigned extensively in the state. Carter went on to win the presidency.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008, despite being badly outspent by his rivals.
“Anybody can come here and make their case,” said campaign organizer Tim Albrecht, who worked for Mitt Romney in the last election cycle. “That’s the beauty of Iowa. If you can find enough true believers he can be successful.”
But given his views on the Iraq war, marijuana and civil unions, Johnson could have a tough time winning over Iowa Republicans.
“Christian conservatives are a big part of the people who participate in the caucuses and they aren’t going to line up on those issues,” said Ed Failor Jr., president of the influential conservative group Iowans for Tax Relief. “Most Republicans support the war in Iraq, and most Republicans don’t support legalizing drugs.”
David Roederer, who ran John McCain’s Iowa presidential campaign, took a similar view.
“He’s got a huge hurdle to get over,” Roederer said.
Johnson doesn’t dismiss those arguments, but he said many Republican strategists don’t understand the depth of voter anger that could make the 2012 election a time when a radically different candidate could win.
“The chickens have come home to roost,” said Johnson. “The sentiment among voters right now is that anybody who is in office needs to be voted out.”