When he was running for the Republican presidential nomination last year, Gary Johnson, the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, drew ridicule from mainstream party members as he advocated legalized marijuana and a 43 percent cut in military spending.
Now campaigning as the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee, Johnson is still only a blip in the polls. But he is on the ballot in every state except Michigan and Oklahoma, enjoys the support of a few small super PACs and is trying to tap into the same grass roots enthusiasm that helped build Rep. Ron Paul a big following. And with polls showing the race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to be tight, Johnson's once-fellow Republicans are no longer laughing.
Around the country, Republican operatives have been making moves to keep Johnson from becoming their version of Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate whose relatively modest support cut into Al Gore's 2000 vote, arguably enough to help hand the decisive states of Ohio and Florida to George W. Bush.
The fear of Johnson's tipping the outcome in an important state may explain why an aide to Romney ran what was effectively a surveillance operation into Johnson's efforts over the summer to qualify for the ballot at the Iowa State Fair, providing witnesses to testify in a lawsuit to block him that ultimately fizzled.
Libertarians suspect it is why Republican state officials in Michigan blocked Johnson from the ballot after he filed proper paperwork three minutes after his filing deadline.
And it is why Republicans in Pennsylvania hired a private detective to investigate his ballot drive in Philadelphia, appearing at the homes of paid canvassers and, in some cases, flashing an FBI badge — he was a retired agent — while asking to review the petitions they gathered at $1 a signature, according to testimony in the case and interviews.
The challenge in Pennsylvania, brought by state Republican Party officials who suspected that Democrats were secretly helping the effort to get Johnson on the ballot, was shot down in court last week, bringing to 48 the number of states where Johnson will compete on Nov. 6.
Reince Priebus, the national Republican Party chairman, has called Johnson a "nonfactor." And Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said that its entire focus was on beating Obama and that "voters understand the stakes are high, and if they want to change the trajectory of this country, they'll vote for Romney."
Aides to Romney, while playing down his impact on their candidate, say Johnson is more likely to hurt Obama in the potentially critical state of Colorado, where a marijuana initiative Johnson supports is expected to draw young voters to his cause on Election Day.
They have said they are keeping a keener eye on Virgil Goode Jr. of Virginia, a conservative Constitution Party candidate who is on the presidential ballot in Virginia and 28 other states.
The Republican efforts to impede Johnson's candidacy have drawn charges of spying and coercion from Libertarians and countercharges from Republicans that the party had resorted to fraud while accepting secret help from Democrats.
Democrats and Obama campaign officials deny any such involvement.
Johnson has been receiving critical help from Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative once so committed to his party that he has a tattoo of President Richard M. Nixon on his back.
A onetime Nixon and Reagan aide, he said he left his party this year out of frustration with its positions on social issues, spending and domestic surveillance.
And Stone says he has become so frustrated with the party's attempts to shut down Johnson, whom he says he is advising at no charge, that he vowed in an email last month, "Republican blood will run in the streets b4 I am done."