US Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks to AFP during an interview in Washington, DC on May 9, 2016
Washington (AFP) - Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are all but assured a US presidential showdown in November, but a third-party candidate -- Libertarian Gary Johnson -- will likely be on the ballot in all 50 states.
Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, earned barely one percent of the vote in 2012 as standard-bearer for the Libertarian Party, which has yet to win a congressional race in its 45-year history and is hardly on the average American voter's radar.
But while Johnson is an unknown quantity compared to his headline-grabbing rivals, he sees the unprecedented chaos within the Republican Party and Clinton's lingering image problems as his clearest-ever chance to break through with a frustrated electorate.
"It really is" a golden opportunity, the 63-year-old Johnson told AFP in an interview Monday near the White House, insisting his campaign could pick up steam as voters seek a more palatable alternative to the provocative billionaire.
Trump's recent ascension as the GOP's presumptive nominee has threatened to unravel the party. Several spooked Republican grandees have refused to back him in the general election, and there is a growing movement among conservatives to back an alternative candidate.
Could this be the Libertarian Party's moment?
A third-party victory is unlikely in the United States, where the system is geared toward a two-party race. "Rigged" is how Johnson described it, appropriating a favorite word of Clinton's challenger Bernie Sanders.
The last alternative candidate to mount a viable campaign was Ross Perot, the billionaire tech tycoon who won nearly 19 percent of the vote in 1992 against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
But with Trump and Hillary Clinton suffering from miserable favorability ratings, Johnson sees fertile ground in 2016, particularly with independent voters but also those Republicans and Democrats disillusioned with the mainstream options.
"They're the two most polarizing figures in American politics today," he said of the frontrunners.
- Best of both worlds? -
"I'm more liberal than Hillary on social issues, and I'm more conservative on fiscal issues than Ted Cruz was," said Johnson, referring to the Texas senator who quit the Republican race last week.
"That puts the best of both worlds, if you will... into one package, and that's me."
Johnson is indeed in a spotlight -- he earned 11 percent support in a March Monmouth University poll that tested a three-way race.
But he has just $35,000 cash on hand, which he admitted "doesn't make for winning the presidency." Clinton has $29 million.
"The quantum leap for us would be to raise $50 million. It hasn't happened," Johnson said.
Hundreds of Libertarian delegates converge on Orlando, Florida in late May to pick their nominee, and Johnson is the odds-on favorite, despite some colorful competitors including anti-virus software developer John McAfee.
Johnson himself is highly unconventional. Often clad in jeans and running shoes, as he was Monday, he is an Ironman triathlete who has climbed Mount Everest.
Johnson advocates for marijuana legalization, and headed a pot startup, Cannabis Sativa Inc, until he stepped down January 1 to launch his campaign.
The Libertarian Party said Johnson is already on the ballot in 36 states and is on track to make all 50 by election day on November 8.
His main challenge, he said, is getting into the debates.
He is suing the commission that organizes the presidential debates "because we believe that it's a rigged game, that Democrats and Republicans collude with one another to exclude everyone else."
Johnson is hardly ever included in presidential polling, and yet the commission only allows candidates in debates if they achieve 15 percent in polls.
Like many Libertarians, Johnson advocates for small government and supports abortion rights.
Trump's positions on immigration, free trade and waterboarding are "scary" and unlikely to bring positive change, he added.
He is also deeply critical of the foreign policy of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, warning of the "unintended consequence" of military intervention.
"If attacked, the United States is going to attack back," he stressed. "But let's stop with empire building."
Political tradition suggests Johnson can't win. But he also said he would not compromise and take the vice presidential slot should either rival want him on their ticket.
"I think I'm 180 degrees when it comes to Donald Trump, and with regard to Hillary Clinton, it's not going to happen," he said.
"There's a reality to this also."