- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2011

It’s an original approach for a potential GOP presidential contender to take, but former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson said in an interview that the war on drugs hasn’t worked any better than the war in Iraq and if elected president, he would end both.

Preparing for a possible run for the 2012 Republican nomination, Mr. Johnson has by his count addressed 450 different groups, scooted over to Iowa and down to South Carolina four times each and toured New Hampshire six times - all in the past 14 months.

It sounds like a grind, but Mr. Johnson insists it has been fun. On one visit, Mr. Johnson pedaled the 472 miles of the Des Moines Register Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.

A relentless jock, the former construction executive has climbed Mt. Everest, despite toes blackened with frostbite, and competed in the grueling Ironman Triathlon five times.

He is frank in acknowledging the odds against him in the GOP primaries, given that he’s unknown nationally and hails from a state that has more cactuses than people. To make matters worse, New Mexico. with its five electoral votes, hardly constitutes a broad base from which to launch a winning presidential bid.

But he recounted in an interview repeatedly hearing encouraging words from voters, especially women, as he traveled throughout the country. He has already demonstrated that he has enough personal appeal and managerial skill to get himself elected governor twice in a state normally prickly toward Republicans, so the GOP nomination and the presidency itself may not be too far a reach.

“I’m actually burning some shoe leather putting that to the test,” he said. “I might be wrong.”

Besides, size doesn’t always matter in presidential politics.

Bill Clinton had been the governor of Arkansas, which has about the same population and about the same electoral college clout as New Mexico, when he announced his presidential campaign.

In Mr. Johnson’s case, not even the odds against winning matter all that much.

“The endeavor itself is a great adventure - or could be,” he said. “I’m a Zen kind of guy. I appreciate the moment and trying to make the most out of the moment.

“You better darn well like the journey, or the destination won’t mean anything,” he added.

If inordinate enthusiasm for governing were as illegal as the recreational drugs the libertarian Mr. Johnson wants to decriminalize, he would be in jail instead of traipsing around the country selling himself to caucus and primary voters.

“Being governor was a blast,” he said. “Politics is something I always wanted to do. I thought it would be a high calling and really enjoyable. And it was terribly exciting to be involved in public policy.’

New Mexico voters liked their unorthodox governor enough to elect him to two four-year terms ending in 2003. When Mr. Johnson left, the size of state government had been substantially reduced and New Mexico was enjoying a large budget surplus.

The probability of Mr. Johnson, 58, pulling off a Clinton-like upset would be considerably enhanced if one or two things went Mr. Johnson’s way, experienced GOP strategists and activists say privately.

Many of the party’s big donors who favor limited government have yet to settle on a candidate in the wide-open GOP field. Combine them with the army of small, credit card-wielding, Internet-accessible donors who made Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s fundraising such a phenomenal success in 2008, and a Gary Johnson nomination campaign might just have the wherewithal to compete.

But, these strategists add, Mr. Paul, long seen as the party’s leading libertarian, would have to put aside any presidential aspirations of his own and endorse Mr. Johnson to avoid dividing that donor pool.

The other potential boost to a Johnson candidacy comes from tea party voters, who have shown a willingness to buck the party establishment and may well see in Mr. Johnson their best hope in achieving their stated goal of returning the nation to the principles of the Founding Fathers.

As governor, Mr. Johnson maintains he worked overtime to do just that, issuing an astonishing 685 vetoes in his eight years in office - more than the combined total of vetoes by the nation’s other 49 governors in those same eight years.

“Any time someone approached him about legislation for some purpose, his first response always was to ask if government should be involved in that to begin with,” said former New Mexico Republican National Committee member Mickey Barnett.

Mr. Johnson’s biggest hurdle could be in persuading religious conservatives that his freedom-first agenda would benefit their moral goals, despite his having once described Jesus Christ as a “great historical figure.”

A major point in his favor is his rock-solid credentials in the business world, where he earned a substantial fortune before ever entering politics. Before becoming governor, Mr. Johnson took his one-person handyman operation and gradually made it into a 1,000-employee construction firm, the largest in the state, before eventually selling it.

He said his desire to run for president springs from a desire to rectify a problem he has been observing his entire life.

“What ails this country is we continue to spend more than we take in,” Mr. Johnson said, “and I always thought that was unsustainable and the day of reckoning will come.”

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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