ORLANDO — Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the front-runner for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination, faced an uptick in criticism Saturday at the party’s national convention.
Johnson, who was also the party’s nominee in 2012, has been on the receiving end of attacks for his vice presidential pick, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. These attacks simmered through the audience at the party’s final presidential debate, the night before the Libertarians select their nominee.
Weld, a former Republican from a blue state, has had a difficult time pitching himself to the Libertarian convention. Many have been skeptical over Weld’s libertarian credentials, especially his record on gun control and support for Republican politicians. Prior to teaming up with Johnson, Weld had endorsed Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich for President.
The debate among the candidates was civil throughout on stage, with the candidates eschewing attacks against one another in favor of attacks on the government and mainstream political parties.
In a potential preview of his general election campaign, Johnson rolled through a list of Trump’s policy positions, accenting each with the phrase “that’s just wrong.”
That move led to Johnson’s biggest applause line of the night, though the crowd was much more vocal about Johnson’s competitors, particularly Austin Petersen and Marc Feldman. Petersen is a young party activist with a sizable following online, and Feldman is an affable figure many convention goers, including Johnson, have praised.
The crowd exploded in approval during Feldman’s lengthy, passionate rap about Libertarianism.
Meanwhile, technology entrepreneur John McAfee, whose pre-debate ritual consisted of throwing a party replete with a light show, bass-heavy dance music and women dressed as butterflies on stilts, was non-combative during the debate despite a cryptic warning he offered ahead of the event.
“Whoever allowed me in this debate tonight made the worst mistake of their life,” McAfee told CNN in an interview.
But despite his aggressive words ahead of the debate, McAfee, like all the other candidates, stuck to the issues in a debate that was less about differentiating the candidates than it was about touting Libertarian beliefs.
Johnson got booed several times for offering less-than-purist libertarian positions, including saying he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He also said he favors that people continue to obtain licenses to drive cars — an idea that his fellow candidates disagreed with.
Given the backlash he has faced, Johnson responded to his critics within the party during a speech before the convention and repeatedly said in an interview he hopes Weld will end up as his running mate. Libertarians elect their presidential and vice presidential candidates separately.
“I am not an old white guy. And I am not Republican-light. I’m a Libertarian,” Johnson said.
Despite some Libertarian in-fighting, calls for party unity were a regular theme.
“Divided we may have been for this short time,” Petersen said, “We will present a united front against the forces of statism.”
Johnson has also had to contend with those who say his personal style is ineffective at expanding the Libertarian Party, something he seemed to acknowledge in his speech when he said, “I constantly apologize for being not the best candidate when it comes to articulating these issues.”
Boyd Kendall, a delegate from Mississippi, said Johnson could benefit from “speech training” and that Weld had “joined the party too late.”
Aaron Barksdale, also from Mississippi, expressed concern about Johnson representing the party against Donald Trump.
“We need somebody that can hold his own, and I don’t believe Johnson is that guy,” Barksdale said.
Johnson brushed off critics who say he isn’t the most perfect messenger for the Libertarian Party.
“I work as hard as I possibly can about that. You can always get better of course. Hey, life is constant improvement,” Johnson said about improving public speaking skills.