DURHAM — A quick glance at Gary Johnson during his visit Thursday to Duke University was enough to realize the Libertarian candidate for president is no Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.
The former two-term governor of New Mexico strolled into a conference room at the Sanford School of Public Policy wearing blue jeans, a navy blazer and a T-shirt with a peace sign. The nearest thing to Secret Service was campus police. With a dozen or so gathered for an afternoon news conference, Johnson left the lectern unmanned and instead stood near the group.
Johnson, 59, is in the middle of a three-week college tour that will include events at 15 schools around the country, starting in Pennsylvania and ending in his home state. The goal is to focus attention on issues neglected along the campaign trail and to draw distinctions between his beliefs and those of his opponents. He’s also hoping to rally his young supporters and win over Ron Paul supporters who are none too enthusiastic about Romney.
At the news conference, Johnson laid out a case for ending the so-called war on drugs in favor of decriminalization, for immediately ending the war in Afghanistan, and for cutting government spending across the board.
A budget proposal by Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, has drawn the ire of Democrats for cutting Medicare spending and balancing the budget over the course of several decades. Johnson said the plan is too slow and cuts too little.
“If we don’t slash Medicare now, there’s no Medicare later,” Johnson said. “I would present a balanced budget to Congress in 2013. ... We’ve got to fix these problems by ourselves, but nobody’s doing it. We’re burying our heads in the sand.”
Johnson has already qualified to be on the ballot in 47 states, including North Carolina.
But one aspect of the race that has frustrated him is the institutional advantages enjoyed by Democrats and Republicans. They control the makeup of congressional districts, set requirements for a candidate to be listed on the ballot, and receive exponentially more media coverage.
Candidates from mainstream parties also control who ends up on the stage for the televised presidential debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which manages the debates, requires a candidate to secure at least 15 percent of the vote in selected polls before he or she can participate. Only Obama and Romney are mentioned in most of the polls used by the CPD, so there is little hope for anyone else.
Johnson said getting onstage is the “best shot” he has at winning, and he may fight in court to be included. But for now he is crisscrossing the country controlling what he can.
“If everyone ‘wastes their vote’ on me, I’ll be the next president,” Johnson said. “So take a closer look.”