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Gary Johnson sounds all but certain to leave GOP, run as Libertarian for president

Gary Johnson says he isn’t planning to leave the Republican Party.

“The party left me,” said Johnson, a little-known former New Mexico governor and Republican presidential candidate. “The Republican Party hung me out to dry.”

With talk like that, Johnson’s departure from the GOP sounds all but certain. If he leaves the Republican Party, he’s likely to run for president as a Libertarian in the coming weeks. But Johnson said he hasn't made a final decision. Still, he came to Florida this week to meet with the Libertarian Party "and he was happy with the meeting," said one of his political advisors, Roger Stone.

An anti-tax and pro-marijuana legalization candidate, Johnson partly blames his poor standing in the race on GOP officials and elites. They did nothing, he said, to help ensure that candidates like him had a shot at being invited to the series of televised debates that have shaped the crowded Republican primary.

And he blames the television networks for not giving him a chance, either.

Johnson’s potential move is as much an act of political frustration as it is a protest of politics as usual. His predicament is also an object lesson in how difficult it is to run for president, a task that requires millions of dollars, big name ID, and Washington political connections.

“I have been excluded in 15 out of 17 debates,” he said. “Really, that has been the death-knell, if you will, to my aspirations.”

The decision to even consider running as a Libertarian, though, has reinvigorated his campaign. He’s sitting down with local newspapers – three in Florida in two days – and he plans to work the New York cable-news circuit by week’s end to talk about the race and his potential switch.

Johnson didn’t think he’d be in this position when he began running months ago. After all, he has a resume Republican candidates would kill for.

Twice elected in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, Johnson is a self-made millionaire and political outsider who vetoed a record number of bills (742), and trimmed budget fat and the state payroll. He cut taxes, balked at raising cigarette taxes, promoted school-choice initiatives and served from 1995 to 2003.

“Overall, Governor Johnson has an excellent record on taxes and consistently pushed for tax cuts despite having to deal with the liberal New Mexico Legislature,” the conservative Club for Growth wrote in a white paper examining Johnson’s policies and positions. 

Johnson, though, isn’t a social conservative. Like Barry Goldwater and other Western Republicans, his conservatism is shot through with a leave-us-alone attitude when it comes to government.

Johnson says he believes in economic freedom for business, and he believes in social freedom for gun owners, gays who want to marry, women who want abortions, or the millions of people who just want to smoke a joint.

“Fifty percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. Among the universe of politicians, 0 percent supports the notion,” Johnson said. “Can you think of any other area of public policy where there’s that much of a disconnect between public opinions and politicians?”

Johnson said he had smoked marijuana years before he was governor and almost immediately after he left office. A physical-fitness freak who once climbed Mt. Everest, Johnson said he used marijuana as a painkiller after a serious para-gliding accident five years ago.

Johnson acknowledges that his pro-pot, pro-choice and pro-gay marriage platform isn’t what many Republican voters want.

 “The majority of republicans are not social conservatives,” Johnson said. “But the majority -- the overwhelming majority -- of Republican activists are social conservatives.”

And they’re the ones who sign up to work for campaigns, spread the word and help raise money.  So Johnson’s problems in the Republican primary aren’t just the fault of Republican elders or the news media.

Republican Ron Paul, the other libertarian-leaning Republican in the race, has similar views to Johnson and also hasn’t risen into the top ranks of the GOP field as a result. Many Paul supporters were prepared to back Johnson if the Texas congressman decided not to run this year.

But Paul ran. And Johnson miscalculated how much that would cost him. He thought their shared less-government philosophy would combine like “stereo speakers…surround sound” at the debates

“Apparently, with the powers that be, one voice is enough,” he said. “A mono speaker’s enough.”

Johnson was included in a Republican Party of Florida debate in September – but only because FOX insisted on it. RPOF didn’t think Johnson qualified. Earlier, Johnson said, he tried to get Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to ask CNN to just include his name on polls so that he’d have a shot at meeting minimal public-support thresholds to be included. It didn’t happen.

“If I’m not in the poll that determines whether or not I’m going to get into the debate, I’m not going to get into the debate,” Johnson said.