Former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson is a teetotaling triathlete who looks the part of the laid-back Mountain West politician.
But don't let the jeans and black mock turtleneck he's sporting on his new website fool you: Johnson is starting to sound like a mad-as-hell populist with an eye cast on 2012 and the building fury aimed at Washington.
"I'm finding myself really angry over spending and the deficit," he said in an interview with POLITICO. "I'm finding myself really angry over what's happening in the Middle East, the decision to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. I'm angry about cap and trade. And I've been on record for a long time on the failed war on drugs."
Is that enough to design a presidential campaign around? It might be, at a time of tea parties, rage at bailouts, job loss and general voter discontent. And there is plainly an opportunity for some politician to harness the anti-establishment, populist grass-roots fervor that is right leaning but untethered to any party at the moment.
It's what Ron Paul tried to do in the 2008 presidential campaign, but Johnson may better positioned to ride the populist wave than the longtime Texas GOP congressman. For one thing, the anti-establishment energy was not at the fever pitch then that it's nearing now. And, unlike the unlikely Paul, a 76-year-old who got interested in elected politics when Richard Nixon abandoned the gold standard in 1971, Johnson is telegenic, is media savvy and, equally important, has twice been easily elected to statewide office.
A libertarian-leaning Republican, Johnson launched "Our America," a group that aims to draw attention to the principles of limited government at home and noninterventionism abroad.
But as the subtitle on the website indicates, "The Gary Johnson Initiative" is also designed to elevate the profile of the ascetic and unconventional former governor, who is known nationally — if at all — for his support of legalizing drugs.
So could Johnson be the tea party movement's preferred candidate?
He's certainly on the same page when it comes to the fiscal issues that have galvanized activists. In the interview — and in a high-production-value video on his group's snazzy website — he touts his small-government record in Santa Fe, where he vetoed 750 bills, a total that at the time was more than that of the other 49 governors in the country combined.
And he embraces the outsider spirit of the tea party movement, noting that he was a construction business owner before winning election as part of the much-heralded Republican class of 1994 governors.
"I had a 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' experience as governor," he said.
But Johnson is no political rube — as he demonstrates by offering the same sound-bite-friendly quotes in an interview that he voices in the video, exhibiting the well-honed skills of a new-media-age pol.
And while he's an admirer of tea party energy — and has actually attended a few rallies himself in New Mexico — he's cautious about their politics.
He said he's uncertain about what exactly they stand for out of fear that he "may not get that right." But without prompting, the former governor brings up the hot-button issue of immigration — an issue on which he takes a far less restrictive view than many on the populist right.
Citing the five limited-government principles that adorn the side of the Tea Party Express buses, Joe Wierzbicki, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Express group, noted that Johnson is in agreement with the group on those issues and had a record to back it up.
"He championed personal liberty and a smaller, less intrusive government, and we applaud both his record and his efforts to continue his fight at the national level," said Wierzbicki, adding that Johnson has "generated a lot of excitement in the Ron Paul constitutionalist and libertarian sect, which is furious about the policies of both Bush and Obama and the Congress of the last three sessions."
Johnson actually endorsed Paul for president in 2008, and he shares some of the Texas congressman's libertarian alarmist views — but without the penchant for gold standard wonkiness.
David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, said Johnson could find some overlap in support between the younger Paul adherents and a broader libertarian-leaning demographic.
Plus, Boaz said, the New Mexican might also be the only Republican giving voice in 2012 to a noninterventionist national security message.
Johnson, for his part, noted his early opposition to the Iraq war and said the mission in Afghanistan had gone astray.
"I don't believe that our national security interests are being threatened in either location," he said.
POLITICO first published this story in 2009. POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.