TAMPA — Gary Johnson is still the longest of long shots to become president.
But now that the former two-term Republican governor is running as a Libertarian, he says success starts with just one number: 15.
If Johnson can snag 15 percent in national polls, the man known as New Mexico's "Governor Veto" can appear in debates alongside President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
So he took the somewhat strange step of urging a group of 30 people Friday in Ybor City to support him — simply by calling polling companies.
"Just ask them to include my name," he said from the stage of Gaspar's Grotto.
Johnson's party affiliation has changed, but his positions haven't. As he describes it, he's "pro-choice with regard to everything."
What hurts his chances is that Americans really have become accustomed to just two choices for president. Libertarian Party candidates have surpassed 1 percent of the vote in national elections just once. If Johnson gets 5 percent of the vote in November, though, the party gets public funding in 2016.
Johnson's name was included in a Gallup poll, taken June 7 to 10, along with Obama, Romney and two other lesser-known candidates. He polled at 3 percent.
Johnson says "entrenched interests" are to blame for the dominance of the two-party system. Then there's the media, and particularly CNN, which he blames for arbitrarily shutting him out of GOP debates last year and cutting audio of an endorsement from independent politician Jesse Ventura. His supporters plan to protest at CNN's Atlanta headquarters this month.
For his third-party platform to survive, Johnson will need the grass roots — people who are proud to tell their family and friends that they voted for someone out of the norm.
"I think that will go a long way toward reassuring the American people that yes, this is viable, this is not fringe, this is not kooky. This is basically what our country was founded upon," said Adrian Wyllie, Libertarian Party of Florida chairman.
Johnson — wearing Levi's jeans, a Nike polo, sneakers and a yellow Livestrong band — pointed out policy differences between himself, Romney and Obama for the crowd. He does not support an individual mandate for health insurance, he wants to get out of Afghanistan immediately, he wants to repeal the Patriot Act, and he wants one "fair tax" on consumption, for starters. Johnson also supports the legalization of marijuana.
He said he would devolve control of Medicare and Medicaid to the states — but not before cutting the programs' budgets by 43 percent. Drastic? Yes. But necessary, he says.
He commended Gov. Rick Scott, who has said he will not implement the Medicaid expansion permissible under the new health care law.
"The money gets phased out, and you're stuck with a bill with no money," said Johnson, who will focus his campaign in more libertarian-leaning places than Florida such as New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Montana and Alaska.
Johnson said he expects to attract supporters from Ron Paul when the Republican formally ends his campaign next month. Paul has not endorsed him.
"The base themselves, neither one of them are very excited about their candidate," said Alex Snitker, the Libertarian Party candidate for U.S. Senate in 2010.
During a question and answer session, Scott Allen, a 55-year-old Libertarian from Polk County, asked Johnson to describe his libertarian epiphany story. Johnson described reading libertarian materials in the 1970s that applied to him.
"Then there is that epiphany that all of us have had, and that is, rolling up to a stoplight in the middle of the night," he said. "There's no cars coming, and you've got a red light. And, okay, so you stop, but is it okay to go? Yeah, it's okay to go.
"And that's Libertarian."
Katie Sanders can be reached at [email protected]