PORTLAND, Maine — Kicking off a two-stop Maine visit on Friday, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson told a Portland crowd that he and running mate William Weld would be “terrific stewards” of the presidency and, what’s more, that they would be “gentlemen.”
But like major-party nominees, Johnson offered few specifics in a short talk designed more as a get-to-know-you presentation than a policy explainer.
The stop by Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Weld, comes as they fight an uphill battle for access to debates with Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Libertarians have never mounted a serious challenge for the presidency, with Johnson winning just under 1.3 million — or 1 percent — of votes in 2012, which was the best showing in party history.
But the historical unpopularity of Trump and Clinton gives them an opportunity to expand on that. More than 61 percent of voters find the Republican unfavorable, according to August averages from RealClearPolitics, but the Democrat isn’t far behind at 53 percent.
What’s unclear is whether Johnson will muster enough support to get into the debates, which are scheduled to start in September. Candidates must meet a qualifying mark of 15 percent in an average of five specific polls, with Johnson’s website placing his average at just over 10 percent.
That quest has led to a barnstorming of New England. Johnson and Weld were in New Hampshire on Thursday and will be in Boston on Saturday. After the Portland event, the two headed to Lewiston for a sold-out evening rally at the Gendron Franco Center.
“We’re going to be terrific stewards of this office and in that context, we’re going to be gentlemen,” Johnson told a small brunch crowd at the Portland Regency Hotel. “We’re not going to be rock-throwers, but we’re not going to be afraid to take positions that haven’t been taken.”
Aidan Funkhouser of Portland said that’s the reason he supports Johnson.
“I think he has a candid honesty that isn’t present in the other major two candidates,” said Funkhouser, who said he was a Bernie Sanders supporter before Sanders bowed out. “He’s not all the way to the right or all the way to the left. He takes the good stuff from both sides and offers something unique. As long as he gets into the debates, I think he has a good chance of winning.”
Maine has been identified as a potential strong spot for Johnson, given the state’s history of supporting third-party candidates. In the 1990s, no state liked Ross Perot more than Maine.
In 1992, the independent got more than 30 percent of votes in Maine to narrowly out-poll President George H.W. Bush for second place behind Democrat Bill Clinton, who won the election. As the Reform Party candidate, Perot won more than 14 percent here in 1996.
Libertarians also have used Maine as somewhat of a trial balloon in 2016. It became the state’s fourth political party in July, and earlier this month, a group led by the party’s former national chairman kicked off a TV and radio advertising push for Johnson in Maine’s rural, somewhat conservative 2nd Congressional District.
There hasn’t been much polling in Maine so far, but an August poll from the Trump-friendly, conservative Breitbart News, pegged Johnson’s support as being in line with national numbers at 10 percent, with Clinton leading Trump by 10 percentage points.
But Trump has made three visits to Maine — which hasn’t voted Republican since 1988 — behind a party-bucking platform that includes opposition to free trade agreements, long a bipartisan staple of politics in this manufacturing-heavy state.
Maine may be a good environment for third-party politics, and some of his stances — such as support for marijuana legalization, which is on the state ballot this year — may play better here than in other places.
But other stances and parts of his party’s platform, which is fiscally conservative and socially liberal, are anathema to Maine politics, including Johnson’s support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Barack Obama and top congressional Republicans support but Trump and Clinton have come out against.
Johnson also has called for large cuts to defense spending, which may incite nervousness at Bath Iron Works, the shipyard that specializes in building high-tech Navy battleships and employs about 5,600 people.
Before the Portland event, Weld said the answer is “not to pretend that the global economy doesn’t exist and that Libertarians are opposed to foreign intervention and not naval and air spending. He said the Navy would be “a winner” in a Johnson administration.
In an interview after the event, Johnson said the free trade has been “unfairly coupled with crony capitalism” by Trump and Clinton.
He said he and Weld create a “tension” on both sides of the political spectrum, but “I think the combination of what we’re saying lines up with most people.”
“I think it’ll play well,” he said. “I think it’ll play well everywhere.”
Several in the audience said they are examining Johnson and Weld because they are disappointed with Trump and Clinton.
“I think Hillary, as an establishment Democrat, is not going to bring any kind of new blood or new ideas to improve the country,” said James Tranchemontagne of Westbrook. “There’s a lot of stuff I liked about Trump at first, but I just expect a candidate to have a little more class.”
“I think Johnson would be a uniter,” said Denise Vrana of Lewiston.
Matthew Brunner of Westbrook said the major political parties have spun too far away from his ideology.
“If you’re in any party and that letter beyond your name defines how you’re going to be making decisions, you probably don’t belong in office,” said Brunner. “If you can’t think on your own you don’t belong in politics. Trump just seems too knee-jerk, and Hillary doesn’t seem to be able to think on her own.”