Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, the former New… (Joe Burbank / AP File Photo )
WEST CHESTER, Pa. — Little-known presidential candidate Gary Johnson gave an answer that would create a media firestorm if delivered by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney: the United States should get out of the Middle East.
Johnson, a Libertarian who is on 47 state ballots and fighting petition challenges in the other three, including Pennsylvania, suggested that the U.S. presence in the Middle East is abetting unrest in the region.
"Get out of these embassies, just plain get out," Johnson said in an interview Monday with the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call. "Right now, they seem to be the focal point for being able to express that dissension.”
"What are U.S. interests when it comes to the Middle East? If it's keeping us safe, I would argue that our military interventions are what are keeping us unsafe. We're over there and innocent people are dying. When we wag our tail, there's a consequence of that tail wag."
Johnson, 59, had taken off his blazer and was sitting on a shaded bench in blue jeans and a grayish T-shirt with a peace-sign logo. He'd arrived on West Chester University's campus in a white minivan with his face, name and "Live Free" logo splashed across both sides.
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Absent his gray hair, he could easily pass for another college student. It's exactly the vibe Johnson seems to be going for: relaxed and untethered as he starts a tour of 20 college campuses. There was a groundswell of support for Libertarian Party ideas — limited government at home and isolationist policies abroad — among 20-somethings inspired by Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, and Johnson is hoping to capture it.
Although he initially sought to run in the Republican primaries, the former two-term New Mexico governor failed to gain traction and pulled out in December to run in the general election as the Libertarian candidate.
"I made a prediction that Ron Paul was not going to be the nominee and this is just too important a message to just drop it," he said. "In my opinion, the Libertarian candidate for president could be that spokesperson, and I saw the opportunity to be that nominee."
Of the approximately 80 people who came to see Johnson on Monday in the student union, many expressed their support for him simply because he is carrying Paul's messages. Some in the audience were even wearing Ron Paul T-shirts.
Billy Reichle, 18, a freshman at the University of Oregon but home in West Chester until fall semester starts next week, said he's a "big Ron Paul guy." Voting for the first time this year, he said he'll be supporting Johnson.
"He's the only one who said he would carry on the Ron Paul legacy," Reichle said. "He would end the [Federal Reserve], he's not into war … he will actually carry on this message."
Johnson is a vocal proponent of legalizing marijuana. He told the gathering that a Colorado ballot initiative to regulate marijuana like alcohol will pass in November and other states will follow suit when their residents start flying to Denver on weekends to unwind.
Johnson supports gay marriage and opposes abortion restrictions. He wants to balance the federal budget and dramatically limit federal taxes. He opposes military intervention. He wants to shift Medicare to a state block-grant program.
"The notion that Washington knows best, Washington top-down has all the answers, that's what has us in the predicament that we're in right now," he said during the town hall-like event. "For those who fall off their chair hearing about a 43% reduction in Medicare, the alternative is no Medicare at all. The alternative is a government that is collapsed onto itself."
Johnson has polled at most 5% when his name is even included in public surveys and has raised just over $1 million. By comparison, Obama has raised more than $300 million and Romney close to $200 million. Johnson is excluded from the three scheduled presidential debates.
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He's an extreme long shot for the White House, but Republicans are fearful that his appearance on the ballot could be a spoiler in states where the race is close, as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was to Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
Nancy Nonnenmocher, 44, a registered Republican, voted for John McCain in 2008 but said Paul "woke me up" and this year she'll be supporting Johnson.
"In Pennsylvania, our vote is probably going to go for Obama anyway, so I'm going to send a message and vote for Gary," she said. "And for me, Obama, Romney, it makes no difference. They are both bad, they have no plan to get us out of this mess."
Libertarians last week beat back an initial Republican effort in Pennsylvania to get their candidates off the November ballot. Commonwealth Court ruled 2-1 that the petition signatures gathered by the Libertarian Party in Pennsylvania were valid.
Republicans had argued that addresses listed did not match the statewide voter registry and thus should disqualify the Libertarian candidates. The state GOP is appealing the court ruling.
Johnson dismissed the idea that a vote for him is a throwaway vote or the same as voting for Obama — a line the major parties often use against a third-party candidate they view as a threat. Johnson said if Romney loses the election, that's on him.
"A wasted vote, in my opinion, is voting for somebody you don't believe in," Johnson said. "The way you change the country is to vote for somebody that you do believe in."
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