DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you don't think a third party candidate can play a role in a presidential election, just ask George HW Bush about Ross Perot or ask Al Gore about Ralph Nader.
This fall, the Libertarian Party will have a candidate on the ballot in at least 47 states. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson probably won't be invited to the debates and pollsters don't usually even bother asking about him. But he could influence the outcome of a close election, as NPR Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Unless you're from New Mexico, where Gary Johnson served two terms as governor, you've probably never heard of him, but Johnson would like to change that.
GARY JOHNSON: I am the only candidate advocating a balanced budget now.
ROSE: Gary Johnson gave a speech at New York University this month, part of his three-week tour of college campuses. He showed up for the occasion dressed in a blue blazer, faded jeans and T-shirt with a peace symbol on it.
In interview, Johnson laid out all the other ways he is not like the two main candidates for the presidency and there are plenty.
JOHNSON: I'm promising to submit a balanced budget to Congress in the year 2013, so that the $1.4 trillion reduction in federal spending. You've got to start off by talking about Medicaid, Medicare and military spending.
ROSE: Johnson's fiscal prescription for the country makes the austere budget proposed by Republican vice president nominee Paul Ryan look like a stimulus plan. Johnson wants to abolish the IRS and the Federal Reserve. He would slash spending on defense and Medicare by a cool 43 percent. And Johnson is just as outspoken when it comes to social issues. He favors same-sex marriage and abortion, rights and even talks about ending the war on drugs.
JOHNSON: As someone who smoked marijuana when they grew up, it may not be the best...
ROSE: I'm sorry, are we clear? You smoked what?
JOHNSON: I have smoked marijuana and I have drank alcohol.
ROSE: Johnson said he doesn't do either anymore, but he does favor legalization and regulation of pot. While the two main presidential campaigns try to avoid deviating from the script, Johnson seems to like speaking his mind, regardless of the political consequences.
JOHNSON: Nobody seems to be wanting to talk about the truth. And for those that believe that we continue to sustain the spending levels that we have by printing money, I'm going to argue that it's not sustainable.
ROSE: Gary Johnson came to politics late. He built his own construction business in New Mexico and sold it before running for governor as a Republican in 1994. Even though he was an outsider, Johnson was allowed to participate in debates in New Mexico, but that's rarely been the case in his campaign for the White House. Johnson was allowed to appear in just two of the endless Republican primary debates, although he did manage to score this zinger.
JOHNSON: My next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration.
ROSE: Still, Johnson seems unlikely to participate in the presidential debates next month. Even former Minnesota Governor, Jesse Ventura, who is supposed to be warming up the crowd for Johnson in New York, acknowledged that's a big obstacle.
JESSE VENTURA: Certainly, I'd like for him to win but he's not going to have a chance if he doesn't get in the debates - trust me on that. If you're not allowed to debate, you cannot win.
ROSE: With that blunt assessment in mind, perhaps, Gary Johnson's campaign filed a law suit against the Commission on Presidential Debates last week arguing that he should be allowed to participate. Johnson knows he's fighting the perception that a vote for him is a wasted vote. He even jokes about it in his stump speech.
JOHNSON: What happens if you all waste your vote on me? I will be the next president of the United States, and that will make a difference.
ROSE: The college kids who came to hear Johnson speak in New York believe their votes can make a difference. Will Duffield is a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College.
WILL DUFFIELD: Well, Gary Johnson may not win this time around. If he polls at five percent, if he splits the vote, it's going to scare, especially the GOP establishment. In 2016, it may be the impetus they need to bring a more pro-liberty candidate onboard.
ROSE: A recent poll, cosponsored by the Libertarian magazine Reason, found Johnson with six percent of the vote nationwide. If he polls anywhere near that well in key swing states like Colorado or Nevada, he could potentially draw enough votes away from Mitt Romney or Barack Obama to sway the outcome of the state and maybe the entire contest. That's hard to predict, in part because Gary Johnson's name is rarely included in state-level polling. But Johnson insists he wants to be more than just a spoiler.
JOHNSON: Look, if Romney loses this election, who's the blame for that? Romney. Obama the same. By giving voice to what I think is the fastest-growing segment of American politics today - the whole liberty movement - I think that's really important.
ROSE: And it could have important consequences in November. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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