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Libertarian Gary Johnson looks to boost credibility, with a little help from Drew Carey

Libertarian Gary Johnson looks to boost credibility, with a little help from Drew Carey
Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, is a former Republican governor of New Mexico. (AFP/Getty Images)

The email invitation for a Gary Johnson fundraiser hosted by comic Drew Carey called for a "Libertarian comfortable" dress code, which could have been cause for concern. After all, just two months ago, at the Libertarian Party convention, a portly man stripped down to his skivvies and danced onstage for two minutes, with C-SPAN cameras capturing every move.

But on Saturday night, in Carey's Mediterranean-style villa, "Libertarian comfortable" meant mostly blazers, jeans and cocktail dresses. There were chi-chi appetizers and American flag-themed name badges and a sprinkling of famous faces.

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It was an utterly normal political fundraiser, which may be exactly what Johnson needs to help power his utterly abnormal bid to win the White House as a third-party candidate.

The fundraiser marked a milestone of sorts for Johnson, who is striving to propel his candidacy, and his party, from the margins to the mainstream. When he last ran for president, in 2012, he certainly wasn't standing in a well-known television personality's backyard, eating vanilla ice cream and snapping photos with admirers.

"Nothing could compare," he said. "Nothing."

Libertarians sense enormous opportunity in this year of enormously unpopular major party candidates. But Johnson, a former GOP governor of New Mexico, remains far behind in name recognition and fundraising; it is far from clear if he'll get the 15% in polls which would qualify him for the presidential debates in the fall.

Johnson's second shot at the presidency has focused on building legitimacy with the broader electorate: tapping former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as his running mate, tirelessly working the media circuit, and now, rubbing elbows with celebrities.

"You have to create this notion that you might actually win," Johnson said. "For a sophisticated few at the moment, there is that recognition. I think that's going to get bigger as you go forward."

The event's cohost interjected: "Can we have a Hollywood moment? One of Drew's "Price is Right" models loves you and wants to say a quick hello."

There were several Hollywood moments. Krist Novoselic, the former bassist of Nirvana, made a detour to Los Angeles just for the event, flying into town on his private Piper Saratoga. The "Price is Right" model, Gwendolyn Osborne-Smith, brought her husband, former NBA player and commentator Kenny Smith, who explained he was open to hearing more about Libertarians thanks to his friendship with Carey, the game show's host.

In all, about 145 people attended the shindig, which planners said would bring in about $100,000 for the campaign. Two founders of separate pro-Johnson super PACs also hobnobbed with the crowd, which including at least one Libertarian-leaning mega-donor, the tomato magnate Chris Rufer.

The courting of deep-pocketed donors may be crucial to Johnson's chances. His campaign brought in less than $700,000 in June, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Throughout the evening — as refreshments progressed from appetizer-sized chicken and waffles to a buffet of flank steak and roasted heirloom carrots to "homemade pudding shots" at the dessert bar — guests offered different takes on what kind of success the Johnson-Weld ticket could achieve this year.

"I think they can get elected," said Novoselic. "Miracles happen. I was in a band in 1990. People didn't think that we were ever going to be No. 1 on the Billboard. And then mores change, things go viral."

Carey, who described himself as politically unenthused until he discovered Libertarianism through Reason magazine, acknowledged that a Johnson victory may be a long shot. But, he said, even swinging the balance in once state might  be enough to send a message.

"Then the very best scenario is that people quit treating this country as a two-party country," he said "and they always include the Libertarian point of view in every single discussion."

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At a question-and-answer session, Johnson laid out that perspective: fiscally conservative, socially liberal, noninterventionist in foreign affairs.

Asked about Islamic State, he took a decidedly nonalarmist tone, asserting that the terrorist group had largely been contained geographically, although he acknowledged that the problem of the group inspiring "lone-wolf" attackers posed a thornier challenge. He vowed to slash taxes and pined for abolishing the IRS "if he could wave a magic wand."

About the Supreme Court, he was unusually deferential to his vice-presidential pick, saying the judiciary would be Weld's area of expertise.

Entirely absent were the quirkier queries that dominated the party's convention, held in Florida, where diehard Libertarians debated the need for driver's licenses or civil rights legislation.

"This is not like Orlando," said Kerry Welsh, the event's co-organizer, who expressed frustration with the party's "out of the mainstream, wacko types."

Idiosyncratic reputation aside, Welsh said Libertarianism is more in line with American political sensibilities now than when he first joined the party as a 19-year-old in 1978.

"My whole life, I've been used to people telling me, 'Boy, Kerry, you have some really crazy views,'" Welsh said, citing his support for legalizing marijuana  and  same-sex marriage.

"Now my friends say, 'Kerry, you are really making a lot more sense than you used to make,'" he added. "And I haven't changed a view on one thing in 35 years. So that's a lot of fun."

Follow @melmason for the latest on national political news.

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