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Long-shot GOP presidential candidate Gary Johnson says he won't give up

CLEARWATER — Gary Johnson is angry, though you wouldn't necessarily know it because Gary Johnson doesn't look like an angry man.

But pull up a seat in the lobby at the Hampton Inn and Suites on Ulmerton Road, where Johnson is staying on the cheap while he tries to muster some attention around Tampa Bay, and listen to the little-known presidential contender talk about how he has been shut out of the race — not by the American people, but by the media and the Republican establishment.

"I think the Republican National Committee has hung me out to dry," he said. "I'm angry. Really angry."

The wildly popular former two-term governor of New Mexico, who lost part of his toe to frostbite climbing Mount Everest on a broken leg, has been excluded from 15 of 17 presidential debates.

The 58 year old who was elected governor in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 has virtually disappeared from major political polling. The governor who got rid of 1,200 state employees, vetoed 750 bills and left New Mexico with a billion-dollar budget surplus is not Republican enough for the GOP.

"They won't return my calls," he said.

That's why he thinks you've probably never heard of Gary Johnson. Even if he grew a handyman business in Albuquerque from scratch to 1,000 employees. Even if he has ridden his bike across mountain ranges. Even if some see him as an electable version of Ron Paul.

"The Republican National Committee has turned their backs on a message that appeals more and more to the American public," he said.

That message?

Less government is the best government. He wants to cut federal spending by 43 percent. He advocates throwing out the entire U.S. tax system in favor of a 23-percent fair tax on consumption that he says would create thousands of jobs overnight. He wants to abolish the Department of Education and the IRS, and he promises to submit a balanced budget in 2013.

Maybe those are ideas many Republicans can swallow. But his stance on social issues, Johnson knows, rub many the wrong way.

He thinks building a fence between the United States and Mexico is an awful idea; better to have a smooth and easy work-visa program. He supports gay marriage. He is fully in favor of a woman's right to choose. He wants to legalize marijuana (and yes, he has smoked pot for pleasure and for medical purposes, but quit several years ago) and decriminalize drug use.

GQ recently argued that Johnson might just be the sanest man running for president.

"He believes that government should just leave us alone," said Adrian Wyllie, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Florida, which hosted a talk and meet-and-greet with Johnson here on Monday.

Johnson's message appeals to many Libertarian-leaning Republicans and Democrats.

"Gary's great," said Douglas Saylor, 40, an orthodontic dental technician from Dunedin. "I like him a lot, particularly on the social issues. He's more liberal than many liberals on that and that make's him very unique."

But even those who love his platform, who appreciate that he comes across as earnest and doesn't employ a media coach or handlers, know that he's the Pluto of Republican presidential planets.

"It seems like it's often a horse race that the media is interested in," said Thomas Frederiksen, 36, of Clearwater. "But he should be taken seriously."

Johnson himself doesn't exactly know why he's not. He was polling above several candidates months ago as the debates launched. But soon he wasn't getting invitations. He argued all he could.

"I thought I had a resume that at least puts me at the table," he said. He was wrong. "I get to live the reality of what that means."

He acknowledges a presidential run was a bucket-list item for a guy whose resume includes Ironmans, ultramarathons, paragliding and balloon racing.

"You've got one go 'round," he said. "This has to be one of life's great adventures. Or I thought it would be. I just wish it were turning out differently. I wish I had a seat at the table."

That has forced him to reconsider how he campaigns. If you're a front-runner and you knock on 100 doors with the media following your every move, 10 million people know about it. If you're Gary Johnson and you knock on 100 doors, 100 people know about it.

And don't be fooled: Gary Johnson is a realist. He knows his chances in New Hampshire, a state known for its social tolerance where Johnson campaigned hardest, are dimming each day. He banked on success there to shoot him to national prominence.

"The reality is, it's not going to happen," he said.

He says he won't quit, though, and that's why he's in Florida. The odds against him, he still wants to spread his message to anyone willing to listen, to keep trying to climb in hopes of escorting a movement into vogue.

"I climbed Mount Everest," he said. "I don't quit."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Gary Johnson, 58

Born: Jan 1, 1953, in Minot, N.D.; grew up in North Dakota and New Mexico

Family: engaged to Kate Prusack, a Santa Fe Realtor; two grown children from previous marriage, daughter Seah and son Erik

Religion: Lutheran

Education: B.S. University of New Mexico, 1975

Started a company, Big J Enterprises, in 1976 that grew into a multimillion dollar construction business

Served two-terms as governor of New Mexico, 1995-2003

Climbed Mount Everest in 2003 and has participated in the Ironman Triathlon Championship several times

Long-shot GOP presidential candidate Gary Johnson says he won't give up 12/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 7:15am]
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