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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Libertarian presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson walks toward City Creek Center as he and running mate Gov. Bill Weld look for lunch in Salt Lake City prior to giving a speech at the University of Utah on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY β€” Zach and Kayla Bloxham didn't expect to see the presidential candidate they plan to vote for in November grabbing lunch in the City Creek Center food court Saturday.

But there was Libertarian Gary Johnson, digging into a plate of the Red Iguana's fish tacos, chatting with his running mate, William Weld, and campaign staff about the sudden interest in their third-party bid for the White House.

"We've talked about our decision in November and not having a lot of choices," Zach Bloxham said after pointing out the candidate to their daughter, Kinley, 6.

"We like Gary Johnson. He's not Clinton or Trump."

The couple described themselves as Republicans who can't vote for either the Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or the GOP's choice, billionaire businessman Donald Trump.

"So we have to find someone as close to our values as possible. And Gary Johnson is as close as it's going to get," Zach Bloxham said. Kayla Bloxham said her husband "can't look Kinley in the eyes and tell her that he voted for Trump."

'Likability factor'

Before posing for a photo with the Bloxham family, Johnson ticked off a series of statistics for a reporter about the ticket's momentum, including reaching 25 million people on Facebook, twice as many as just a few weeks ago.

The former two-term New Mexico governor said he and his running mate, Weld, a former Massachusetts governor, are already close in some polls to the 15 percent level of support they need to be allowed to participate in the upcoming presidential debates.

"That's huge. It's just huge," said Johnson, who arrived at the exclusive Alta Club mid-morning dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, carrying a backpack and dragging a wheeled carry-on suitcase.

In deference to the day's campaign events β€” a private gathering for members of the eclectic "Buckshot Caucus" at the club, a rally at the University of Utah and media interviews β€” he changed into a bright turquoise checked dress shirt.

"For us, there is the likability factor," he said. "And so the more people that get to know us, that should reflect in higher polling. So that's what's happening now. Months ago, yeah, (it was) any third (party) name."

Later, on his way in to the U. Student Union Building, Johnson smiled broadly after hearing they've just received their biggest endorsement yet, from a Republican congressman in Virginia, Rep. Scott Rigell.

Just then, a young volunteer in a Johnson/Weld T-shirt, Meerim Abdrisaeva, recognized the candidate and asked if she could hug him. "I genuinely don't like politicians. But I love you guys," Abdrisaeva said.

Johnson, who earned enough years ago from selling a construction company that he started to focus full-time on politics, said voters may not agree with everything the ticket stands for, but they will respond positively to the candidates themselves.

What he said he expects to hear from voters who disagree with them is, "But you know what, I like them and I think that they're honest. And I think that they have genuine integrity and recognize them for the fact that they have been governors."

The issues

There was plenty of applause for Johnson from the nearly 2,000 students and others gathered to hear him at the U. Saturday, especially for his support of legalizing marijuana, term limits, the Second Amendment and the "judicious" use of the military.

But there were a few boos when he talked about backing school vouchers as governor. And when he said he was sorry for having his "head in the sand" about the Black Lives Matter movement, someone shouted, "All lives matter!"

Within a half-hour, Johnson had gone through a long list of positions that also included his opposition to the death penalty because of the possibility of error and wishing he could replace income tax with a federal consumption tax.

He mentioned Trump only briefly, referring to the wall the GOP candidate has promised to build along the Mexican border as "not the country we are" and calling for it to be made "as easy as possible" for workers to come to the United States.

Johnson stumbled over the Libertarian promise to keep government away from wallets and bedrooms, but summarized the party as "socially agnostic. We're socially accepting. We're socially tolerant. Whatever you are, don't force it on others."

Religious liberty

It's not clear how much appeal Johnson's fiscally conservative but socially liberal stands will have to Utah voters, particularly his view that religious liberty is used as a guise to discriminate.

"A candidate who has expressed reservations about religious liberty is not a perfect fit for Utah," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

Utahns concerned about the size of the federal government and its control over the state may like what they hear from Johnson about balancing the national budget by cutting programs, Karpowitz said.

But, he said, those same Utahns often hold conservative stands on social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, marijuana use and the right to resist following a law based on faith that are very different from Johnson's.

"Gary Johnson is unlikely to be the candidate to satisfy them," Karpowitz said, although many Utah voters' dissatisfaction with the Republican and Democratic nominees may mean he gets at least a second look.

Unfortunately for Johnson, his recent comments on religious freedom being "a black hole" that would create "discrimination that you never dreamed could even exist" also included a reference to Mormons.

"I mean, under the guise of religious freedom, anybody can do anything," Johnson told the Washington Examiner. "Back to Mormonism. Why shouldn't somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead?"

In an op-ed for the Deseret News, Johnson said he is "well aware of the painful history of government interference with Mormons" and praised the state for balancing religious rights and anti-discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people in a 2015 law.

Saturday, Johnson said his "intent was to simply point out that Mormons were subject to religious discrimination" and suggested he could have stated it more clearly. Weld said the statement "was garbled in translation" by the media.

Richard Davis, a BYU political science professor who has served as the Utah County Democratic Party chairman, said Johnson's statements about religious freedom are "going to be a red flag" for many people of faith.

Davis said the more Utahns hear about Johnson's beliefs, "the more they're going to see the fundamental problem of libertarianism for social conservatives," the lack of government involvement in personal behavior.

He said rather than a hands-off approach on "pornography, abortion, gay marriage, all those things not seen as the purview of government," Utahns, "with the influence of the LDS Church, tend to favor a government role to moderate behavior."

'Not kooks'

Still, Utah Libertarian Party Chairman Andrew McCullough sees growing interest in Johnson, who won just over 12,500 votes in the state's 2012 presidential election, a very distant third place.

"There's very, very little doubt he's going to do better this time," McCullough said, even though the state Elections Office reports there are less than 10,100 Libertarians among the state's nearly 1.5 million registered voters.

What's going to win over Utahns, including a chunk of the state's unaffiliated voters who far outnumber Democrats, is their frustration with the other candidates, particularly Trump, McCullough said.

Johnson is "not Donald Trump. I know that sounds flippant but I think that's the No. 1 thing that's going to attract people," McCullough said, because voters see both Libertarians on the ticket as likable.

"Nobody is going to get up and say, 'I hate these guys.' That's what we hear over and over against about the two major party candidates," he said. "Libertarians are kind of considered kooks. But our ticket are not kooks."

Johnson's 1.24 percent finish in 2012 compared to just under 73 percent for the GOP nominee, Utah's adopted favorite son, Mitt Romney, and nearly 25 percent for President Barack Obama, the Democrat on the ballot.

Mitt and marijuana

Romney, who has said he can't bring himself to vote for either Trump or Clinton, may have given Johnson a boost by telling CNN during his annual Deer Valley donor retreat in June that he was taking a look at the Libertarian ticket.

Also a former governor of Massachusetts, Romney said then he wouldn't hesitate to back the ticket if it was Weld running for president and expressed concern about Johnson's stand on marijuana, saying the drug "makes people stupid."

Johnson told The Hill in early June he had used marijuana recreationally as recently as a month ago, but had stopped for the duration of the campaign. He also pledged not to use marijuana if elected.

Late last month, Johnson told CNN that Romney has spoken with him and is considering making an endorsement. Weld told the cable news network they didn't want "to press the point" unless they rise to 15 percent support in the polls.

"He's thinking about it. I talk to Mitt from time to time," Weld said Saturday. He said he expects the Libertarian ticket will reach that level of support this month and "seal the deal" to be part of the September and October debates.

The last third-party candidate to join the Republican and Democratic nominees on the debate stage was Ross Perot in 1992. Perot, an independent, came in second in Utah's presidential election that year, behind then-President George H.W. Bush and ahead of soon-to-be President Bill Clinton.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said he believes Johnson could pull off a similar result this November. He said in Utah, Republicans are eager for an alternative to Trump while many Democrats may see Johnson as too liberal.

Still, Corroon said, Johnson is likely to take away votes from both parties in Utah, being described as a swing state in the November election because of the lack of support for Trump among Mormons.

"I think Gary Johnson could come in second here in Utah," the Democratic leader said. "But the bigger question is, who would come in first. It’s a close race."

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