Former New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson tests Florida waters for presidential bid

EDITOR'S NOTE: Correction notice appended below.

TALLAHASSEE — A self-made millionaire Republican is campaigning in Florida on a platform of spending cuts and less government.

It's not Rick Scott, anymore.

This is Gary E. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor and advocate for the legalization of marijuana, who's putting out Florida feelers in a possible bid for the presidency in 2012.

Johnson's campaign-style stops in Tallahassee, Melbourne and Orlando last week reveal that the presidential race is already at a low boil in the nation's largest swing state.

Without Florida, Republicans say, they can't recapture the White House.

Johnson shrugs when told he's a long-shot candidate compared with better-known former Govs. Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin and current Govs. Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty. Johnson has overcome long odds before. As a political newcomer, he shocked the political establishment when he beat a three-term incumbent in 1992, an echo of Scott's out-of-nowhere success in Florida.

Johnson says his legacy of record vetoes and tax cuts from 1995 to 2003 in New Mexico separate him from the crowd of likely presidential hopefuls.

So does his position on pot and the drug war.

"The issue of marijuana legalization is obviously an attention-getter," Johnson said. "And you can't shy away from it. I have to defend it. I have to defend the position."

Johnson's reasons: Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and the costs of locking up pot smokers exacts too much of a toll on civil liberties and on taxpayers. He said marijuana would be considered less of a gateway drug if it were sold alongside "more dangerous drugs'' like booze.

"I don't drink. I don't smoke pot. But I've drank and I've smoked pot," said Johnson, an accomplished triathlete who once scaled Mount Everest. "The big difference between the two is that marijuana is a lot safer than alcohol."

Johnson said it shouldn't be legal to sell marijuana to children, or to operate a car under the influence. He said he also opposes legalizing cocaine, heroin or crystal methamphetamine.

Opinions on drug war

Johnson said that, in two years, a majority of Americans would likely support the legalization of marijuana, according to polling. But, he acknowledged, it isn't easy to quickly explain his position on the drug war in a Republican primary.

"And it's not, really, a 30-second sound-bite deal," he said. "It's maybe about a three-minute deal."

But campaigns are driven by half-minute ads, especially in a state as big as Florida. And the average GOP primary voter isn't likely to support decriminalizing pot.

When told of Johnson's position on legalizing marijuana, Republican Party of Florida chairman John Thrasher, a St. Augustine senator, gave a skeptical "Oh, boy'' as a response. Thrasher sounded more enthusiastic about the fact that Johnson was in the state in the first place.

"The presidential campaign has already begun," Thrasher said. "There are people running for president and they're coming here because Florida's going to play a big role."

Thrasher said the party is "optimistic'' about holding an event called "Presidency V'' next fall in which the party and a "major news organization'' would host a debate for the major Republican candidates for president. Thrasher was less sanguine about holding an early primary, as the party did in January 2008, or holding an early, nonbinding straw poll, as it did in 1995.

Because of the Electoral College, Florida is a must-win for Republicans, who need the Sunshine State and Texas to balance out traditional Democratic wins in New York and California. In 2012, Florida takes on added importance because its share of the Electoral College — currently 27 — could grow by two.

Also, Tampa will host the GOP national convention, where the Republican nominee will officially be named.

Libertarian streak

Early surveys show Johnson polls in the single digits. But supporters and detractors alike say he could benefit from the support of tea party conservatives and backers of Ron Paul, who has spoken favorably of the former New Mexico governor.

Like Paul, Johnson wants major changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And Johnson said the United States should withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and cut defense spending.

Johnson also opposes President Barack Obama's health care plan and criticizes the Republican-passed Medicare prescription drug benefit under President George W. Bush because it wasn't paid for.

"It's a new ball game thanks to the tea party, and Gary Johnson's fiscal positions and record are really appealing," said Mark Cross, an Osceola County Republican official and the executive director of Florida Campaign for Liberty, a nonprofit affiliated with Paul.

In addition to speaking to Republicans last week, Johnson also met with the University of Central Florida student chapter of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws.

Cross, who helped set up luncheons and Republican meet-and-greets for Johnson in Orlando and Melbourne, said Johnson's record should overcome Republican doubts about his position on the drug war.

Cross said the better-known Romney could face more trouble than Johnson because the former Massachusetts governor instituted an insurance mandate that was used as a model in Obama's health plan.

"Johnson's strength is his vetoes," said Cross, noting that the former New Mexico governor vetoed nearly 750 bills from a Democratic Legislature. Johnson also forced some tax cuts and crusaded for school choice initiatives.

"He was an extremely conservative governor. But he had a strong libertarian streak," said Max Coll, a Santa Fe Democrat who was the state House budget chief in New Mexico during Johnson's term.

"He was very dogmatic," Coll said of Johnson. "He wanted to do it his way or else."

As a result, in his final year in office, Johnson watched the New Mexico Legislature convene in a first-ever special session and override his veto of the state budget.

Parallels with Scott

Johnson said he sees similarities with Gov.-elect Scott, who largely financed his own campaign and came out of the private sector to win the governor's mansion. A big difference, though: Scott spent about $73 million out of $96 million on his own campaign. Johnson said he spent about $510,000 of the $540,000 on his race.

"The parallels between myself and him are very similar," Johnson said. "The idea was that you weren't buying anything. If you were going to contribute, there was going to be no quid pro quo. There's nothing for sale. I see that with your governor-elect."

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.

CORRECTION: Mark Cross, an Osceola County Republican official and the executive director of Florida Campaign for Liberty, helped set up luncheons and Republican meet-and-greets for Gary E. Johnson in Orlando and Melbourne. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online reported they were set up for someone else.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson tests Florida waters for presidential bid 11/28/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 29, 2010 4:16pm]

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