He still doesn't get much attention from the mainstream media, but Libertarian presidential candidate Gary E. Johnson could be the key to who wins the White House on Tuesday — especially if he takes votes away from Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in Ohio or Colorado.
One recent CNN poll has Mr. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, with 5 percent of the vote in Ohio.
Who that ultimately helps or hurts in the crucial swing state remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Mr. Johnson, who describes himself as "more liberal than Obama on civil liberties and more conservative than Romney on dollars and cents," believes he'll be a factor.
"Whichever candidate I make lose, that would be terrific because that would open a debate and a discussion over the two parties," he told reporters recently. "What really is the difference between the two? It's not much. It's really not much at all."
Tuesday's results, good or bad, also pose questions about the future of the self-branded "minimum government, maximum freedom" Libertarian Party.
Mr. Johnson officially joined only last year — he was a Republican when he governed New Mexico for two terms from 1995 to 2003. But to hear him tell it, the party that began as a small group of activists in Colorado in 1971 is now closer to the cusp of serious national significance than ever before.
"The evolution of the Libertarian Party is hopefully going to be one of being an annoyance of this election — a spoiler — to then going on to being a player in the future," he told The Washington Times.
The Libertarians are hoping for the kind of impact that third-party candidate Ralph Nader had in 2000, when he and the Green Party siphoned enough votes to cost Al Gore the state of Florida — leading, ultimately, to the Democrat losing the election to George W. Bush.
Mr. Johnson is on the ballot in 48 states. While CNN's poll stopped short of measuring whose votes he might take in Ohio, the Libertarian is pretty sure he'll take votes from both candidates, and he predicted he could affect the race's outcome in five battleground states.
"In New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, I take more votes away from Obama," he said. "In North Carolina and Michigan, I take more votes away from Romney."
Significant chunks of voters in those states are either disgusted by the two major-party candidates, or simply see themselves aligned with Mr. Johnson, who has spent roughly $2 million nationally compared to the estimated $1 billion spent by each of the two major parties.
On issues, the former governor is sometimes marginalized as the "legalize marijuana" candidate.
But his policy positions range as deep and wide as those of Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas Republican who made headlines during the primaries as the only Republican presidential candidate with a truly libertarian bent.
The No. 1 issue facing America, Mr. Johnson said, is unsustainable government spending. Democrats and Republicans, Mr. Johnson says, go through the motions of appearing to be concerned about runaway federal spending. But when it comes to solving the problem, he says both major parties are in denial.
"Either party gets elected and we're going to see that the police state will continue to grow, we're going to find ourselves in a continued state of war, military interventions are not going to cease and spending will continue to be unsustainable, resulting at some point, I think sooner than later, in a monetary collapse."
If elected, Mr. Johnson said he would "submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2014 that would include a $1.4 trillion reduction in federal spending.
"And then I am promising to advocate on the part of eliminating income tax, corporate tax and abolishing the IRS, and replacing all of it with one federal consumption tax," he said, adding that change of that magnitude necessarily "reboots the American economy."
"Zero corporate tax rates, in my opinion, creates tens of millions of jobs in this country," he said. "Manufacturing jobs flock back to the United States and foreign capital investment increases dramatically."
On health care, he believes in repealing Obama's plan and slashing spending. "Medicare is a benefit that you and I put $30,000 into in our lifetimes while receiving back three times that," he said. "That's not sustainable in any way shape or form."
He advocates an immediate 43 percent cut in defense spending, "which takes us back to 2003 levels."
"We ... have an obligation to provide ourselves with strong national defense, but I will stress that 'defense' is the operative word and not offense or nation-building, and I suggest that the biggest threat to our national security is that we are bankrupt."
When it comes to the U.S.-Israel alliance, he believes there's no good reason for Israel to preemptively bomb anyone, including Iran.
"A story that goes untold is that Israel has 300 nuclear warheads," he said. "Any attack against Israel is going to result in the destruction of whatever country launches the attack."
On energy, Mr. Johnson is decidedly pro-free-market, especially with regard to tapping deeper and more quickly into U.S. fossil fuel reserves. Renewables, he said, "have to be a part of things moving forward," but they "don't in any way come close to being able to meet the energy contained in a gallon of gasoline."
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