“Maybe this is dreaming,” Gary Johnson says, “but I do think there is a chance of being up on the debate stage with President Obama and the Republican nominee.” The former governor of New Mexico is used to big dreams. But for now he is focused on the somewhat more manageable task of winning the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination.

Johnson began his campaign as a Republican, in the party where he had spent his whole political career. He had endorsed Ron Paul in 2008, and many saw him as a logical choice to take Paul’s libertarian ideas further into the mainstream. Johnson was younger, has executive experience, and has little baggage from the intra-libertarian ideological wars of the past. But he also had less money and organization, and when Paul decided to run again his supporters remained loyal. Paul quickly became a factor in Iowa, where he ultimately finished a strong third, and New Hampshire, where he ran second.

Johnson languished; he was invited to only two GOP debates, in one coming up with a memorable quip about his neighbor’s dog creating more “shovel-ready” projects than Obama. (This was overshadowed by subsequent back-and-forth over whether Johnson had borrowed the joke from Rush Limbaugh.) The exclusion cost him dearly and still obviously annoys him. “I sent a letter to the Republican National Committee,” he says. “I didn’t ask them to make sure I was included in the debates. I asked to be included in the polls they were using to decide who to include in the debates.”

His irritation is justified. Here was a two-term governor of a swing state with a record of balancing the budget and cutting taxes, yet he could not even get on the same debate stage as an ex-CEO of a midsized pizza company or a three-term congressional backbencher. When Johnson was listed in the polls, he was competitive with Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman, who were both included in most debates. The networks treated Johnson like Buddy Roemer (another former governor) and fringe candidate Fred Karger.

In December, Johnson decided he had had enough. He bolted the Republican Party and announced he was seeking the Libertarian nomination. In some respects, the LP is a much better fit. Johnson is a fiscal conservative, but he also supports gay marriage, open immigration, and legal abortion until fetal viability. He raised eyebrows by reaching out to pagan voters and other groups alien to the Christian right. Some of this may have been happenstance rather than deliberate strategy—running as a Republican in New Mexico, Johnson forged a tactical alliance with pro-lifers on moderate abortion restrictions despite his pro-choice stance—but opposition to the drug war has been a defining stance for him.

During the 1990s, Johnson was the only governor in the country to advocate drug decriminalization. No state’s chief executive has been eager to break that ground since. Johnson favors the full legalization of marijuana and argues that drug addiction should be treated as a medical problem rather than a crime. He is cheerfully open about his own youthful drug use—“I never exhaled,” he told the New Republic—and even admitted to the Weekly Standard that he had used marijuana for medicinal purposes from 2005 to 2008 after fracturing a vertebra in a paragliding accident.

While all of this is considered terribly eccentric in Republican circles, Johnson’s history is an asset in the Libertarian Party. But the ex-governor isn’t some stoner out of “Dazed and Confused” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He built a multimillion-dollar construction business. He is an avid athlete who climbs mountains, runs, and bicycles. And he was by most accounts a successful governor.

Johnson cut taxes 14 times and never approved a single tax increase. Yet by the time he left office in 2003, New Mexico was one of only four states with a balanced budget. That’s because Johnson was a steadfast foe of government spending, earning the nickname “Governor Veto.” Johnson vetoed over 750 bills, more than all the other governors combined. Unlike some other would-be presidents, his record of fiscal conservatism isn’t confined to warming up the crowd at a Tea Party rally.

“As governor, Mr. Johnson showed that a non-ideological, pragmatic libertarianism can work as a governing philosophy,” wrote libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson (who proceeded to argue that this would actually doom him in the Republican primaries). “Independent voters hankering for a genuine alternative to Barack Lyndon Roosevelt Obama on the left and Fox News flunkies on the right might have their man,” opined the Reason Foundation’s Shikha Dalmia.

That’s exactly the opening Johnson hopes to exploit in a general election. “Most people are fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” he says. He describes the two-party system as “broken.” Now outside of it, Johnson is running on a post-partisan, post-fusionist brand of libertarianism straight out of Declaration of Independents, the book by Reason editors Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, built on the idea that the freedom philosophy offers solutions to the masses disenchanted with politics as usual.

Johnson cites poll numbers showing that many Americans are willing to vote third party and has joked that “Mickey Mouse would poll 15 percent against Obama and Romney.” Some actual poll numbers have been encouraging for Johnson. Public Policy Polling has him at 6 percent in North Carolina, a state Republicans are trying to turn red again after it voted narrowly for Obama in 2008. Other surveys have shown him drawing similar support at a national level.

But to get to the general election, Johnson first has to win the Libertarian nomination. Despite the fact that he would have the strongest political résumé in party history—no Libertarian presidential candidate has ever governed a state before—in the LP nothing is guaranteed. It took Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman, six ballots to beat a field of mostly unknown candidates in 2008. Twenty years earlier, Ron Paul barely edged out activist Russell Means at a bruising party convention that hurt feelings and fractured alliances. Johnson says he expects to face at least nine opponents at the party’s May 4–6 convention in Las Vegas.

Barr could end up being a problem for Johnson. He too was a prominent former Republican elected official who migrated to the Libertarian Party. The party also nominated an ex-Republican and libertarian pragmatist for vice president. The ticket’s poll numbers in a three-way race were good, setting expectations for a record showing. Instead Barr didn’t get a higher percentage of the vote than more obscure—and more radical—past nominees.

Yet Barr did improve the party’s raw vote totals, which may be a better metric for comparing candidates who received less than 1 percent of the popular vote. More importantly, Johnson would run a very different general election campaign. Barr positioned himself as a right-wing alternative to the Republican nominee, competing with the Constitution Party’s Chuck Baldwin. That has seldom been a successful approach and became even more difficult once John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, soothing disaffected conservatives.

“I’ve debated Bob Barr,” Johnson recalls. He says the 2008 Libertarian nominee evolved into a capable defender of the party’s principles, but that his record doesn’t compare. Johnson isn’t going try to run to the right of the Republican nominee. He is going to campaign against drug laws, the Patriot Act, immigration restrictions, and attempts to thwart gay marriage, wooing socially liberal voters too.

Foreign policy is another possible weak spot, though on this issue Libertarians are a fractious bunch. The party platform is officially noninterventionist and so, at first glance, is Johnson. He opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. He supported the initial invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but opposes the decade-long occupation and now favors withdrawal. Johnson is not clamoring for war with Iran.

But Johnson muddied the waters by telling the Weekly Standard that he favored unspecified humanitarian interventions. He has said the United States shouldn’t tolerate genocide, for example. In our interview he was more specific, citing the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda as the kind of enemy he would strike. He also stressed the importance of a strategic alliance with Israel and expressed some concern about the Iranian nuclear program.

Johnson notes that what he is proposing in Uganda would be limited, based on a statute passed by Congress, and would not be a unilateral presidential war—unlike the operation against Libya, which Obama initiated, Congress never approved, and Johnson opposed. He isn’t exactly Ron Paul on foreign policy, but he is much further from John McCain.

There are some concerns that Johnson will run afoul of state sore loser laws if he is the nominee, imperiling Libertarian ballot access. He ended his Republican campaign before 2012 but remains on the primary ballot in many states. The LP prides itself on getting on the ballot in nearly 50 states, something most minor parties cannot do.

Johnson benefits from a tremendous amount of goodwill in the liberty movement. “When Gary says he is going to do something he does it,” says Steve Kubby, a California marijuana-legalization advocate who has run for office as a Libertarian. “Whether it’s climbing Mount Everest, balancing the budget, or fighting [against] the drug war.” William Westmiller, a libertarian Republican activist, calls Johnson “a principled and experienced politician.”

Superficially, Gary Johnson and Ron Paul are working at cross-purposes. First they were competing for the same votes in the Republican primaries. Now Paul is trying to bring libertarian-leaning voters into the Republican Party while Johnson is attempting to run a viable third party campaign. But a good bit of Paul’s leverage within the GOP stems from his ability to appeal to voters who aren’t guaranteed to back the party’s nominee. The Washington Post reports that Romney in particular covets Paul’s supporters; former Vice President Dan Quayle has gone so far as to tell National Review that Republicans will lose in November without them.

Paul has no desire to repeat his 1988 third-party run. His son Rand’s ascendancy within the Republican Party makes this option even less attractive. Johnson gives Paul’s supporters somewhere to go in November if the GOP doesn’t court them. If Paulites stay organized within the GOP but become a swing vote in the election, the Paul and Johnson candidacies might be mutually reinforcing.

“If there were a reasonable expectation that Ron Paul would win the GOP nomination, it might have created a conflicting appeal that would have been problematic for the movement,” says Westmiller. “That isn’t likely, so it’s good to have a worthy liberty candidate for the general election campaign.” Johnson makes this point himself. “I give people a choice if Ron Paul isn’t the Republican nominee,” he says.

As Kubby sees it, supporting the former governor is a choice to keep the government out of things “that are none of its damn business.” The soft-spoken, professorial Gary Johnson probably wouldn’t put it like that, though he’d almost certainly agree.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.