Commentary: Could Libertarian Gary Johnson shake up the presidential race?

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramJanuary 19, 2012 

A candidate from the Southwest looks like a shoo-in for the fall ballot.

But he won't be a Texan, or named Perry or Paul.

Three weeks after he declared himself "liberated" from Republicans, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is proving that you can quit and still get ahead.

He now draws 10 percent of the vote in some polls as a Libertarian, raising the likelihood that the third-party vote might swing the election to President Barack Obama.

Johnson, 59, a retired construction executive, was trailing even straggler Jon Huntsman in Republican polls and had qualified for only two debates.

Now, as a Libertarian, he's drawing 8 percent of the vote against Obama and Mitt Romney in one recent North Carolina poll.

That swings the state Democratic.

"I'm still delivering the same message, and I want to carry the debate forward," Johnson said by phone last week.

His anti-establishment campaign will sound a lot like Texan Ron Paul's.

"We talk about the same things," Johnson said.

"But the way I see it, I'm not going after the Paul vote. I'm going after the Libertarian vote."

Libertarians will nominate a candidate May 5 at their convention in Las Vegas. Johnson is one of four candidates who will debate Feb. 25 in Grapevine.

Former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley of Minnesota, a Reform Party campaigner, said Johnson has the "gravitas" to compete.

"If there's a time for a third-party candidate, it's this year," Barkley said.

"Most Republicans don't really want Romney. If Johnson can raise money, he'll split that vote."

In 2006, Barkley managed novelist Kinky Friedman in a four-way campaign for Texas governor.

Rick Perry, the incumbent, won with only 39 percent.

"If you get a fourth candidate this fall -- and I think we will -- that ensures Obama's election," Barkley said.

Third-party support often fades by Election Day. But few candidates have followers like Paul's.

Paul backer and former Texas gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina won't talk about Johnson yet.

"I think Paul voters are very much focused on winning, and not at this juncture looking to alternatives," she wrote Friday.

They must be tempted to look west.

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