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Ex-New Mexico guv bases his presidential campaign in — Utah?
Ex-guv of New Mexico Gary Johnson loves Salt Lake City.

By Thomas Burr The Salt Lake Tribune

Published October 3, 2011 10:39 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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A Republican presidential candidate has landed his national campaign headquarters in Salt Lake City, just a couple of blocks from the Utah governor's mansion.

But it's not the White House contender you might think it is.

No, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's campaign laid down roots in Orlando, Fla., some 2,000 miles away, before shifting to Manchester, N.H.

It's former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who has chosen Salt Lake City as his base for the 2012 race.

The main reason: It's also the home of Johnson's top strategist and campaign chief, Ron Nielson, who heads NSON Opinion Strategy, a polling, research and consulting firm.

"He has his operation there in Salt Lake," Johnson says, "and so, from a cost standpoint, it is really effective to be there."

That's a plus for a candidate who isn't raising large sums of cash and has struggled to break into the mainstream White House field. Other contenders, such as Huntsman and Mitt Romney, boast large offices filled with staffers working feverishly to promote their candidate.

Johnson's effort is largely virtual.

He has a staffer in Los Angeles, two in Sacramento, Calif., and a few in Washington, D.C. Joe Hunter, the former chief of staff to then-Rep. Chris Cannon, works from his home in Park City for Johnson's campaign.

The candidate himself is often roaming the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire.

"We're a big fan of virtual offices," says Nielson, who ran both of Johnson's successful gubernatorial bids and is guiding his first presidential chase.

It also helps that the candidate has other ties to the Beehive State. For example: Johnson has hang-glided at the Point of the Mountain and loves to ski. He's a big fan of Utah.

"If I were to move to any big city in the United States, I would move to Salt Lake," Johnson says. "And I would say that to anyone who would want to listen. You've got it all."

Of course, Johnson's goal now is to move to Washington, specifically to a big white house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Underdog, overachiever? • For now, he is settling for a Salt Lake City headquarters in a three-story, mansion-turned-office on South Temple. It sports no banner, no sign and only one Johnson poster.

But Nielson stresses the campaign and the candidate can overcome deep-pocketed rivals.

"He's got a lot of energy," Nielson says. "Right now, he's presenting another option. He's created jobs. He's balanced budgets."

Johnson touts his record of vetoing more bills than any of the other governors — combined. Plus, he argues, he was elected as a Republican in a state dominated 2-to-1 by Democrats.

Though he says Huntsman did good things as governor, Johnson notes he had to work in a much tougher environment to get things done.

"I went into what I would describe to you as hostile relative to Utah," Johnson says, "and I'm making the pitch that I really made a difference."

Nielson, who met Johnson in 1993, a year after Nielson started NSON, considers himself a libertarian-Republican like his candidate, and he's hoping some Utah college students might be attracted to the campaign and volunteer to help.

After all, they could earn some presidential campaign experience without leaving home.

"If it was for a different campaign," Nielson says, "they'd have to go clear across the country."

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a Romney backer, says there are various types of campaigns that candidates run, but those on shoestring budgets have to make a difference any way they can.

A virtual campaign with a headquarters in Salt Lake City helps.

"If you're running a campaign like that," Jowers says, "it's all about getting the best bang for your buck."

That goes for any opportunity on the national stage, too, and Johnson made the best of his few minutes recently.

Shovel ready • A day after the recent Republican debate in Orlando, Fla. — the first debate in months in which Johnson was included — the former New Mexico governor became, for a time, the most Googled person in the world.

Because of dog poop.

Johnson quipped during the debate that his neighbor's dog had created more "shovel-ready jobs" than President Barack Obama, a line he later clarified was first uttered by radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Nonetheless, it earned Johnson a slew of television time, something his campaign had lacked for weeks.

The candidate has grumbled about his exclusion from previous debates, pointing out that he has polled higher than rivals Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But those candidates were added to a previous CNN debate while he wasn't.

In the latest CNN poll, Johnson notes he wasn't even an option for voters to select.

"Over the last several weeks, [despite] being outspent 15 to one, my name got to 2 percent in the national polls," Johnson says. "I had overcome what I needed to overcome and then my name was excluded. From any objective look at this, this is not fair."

Still, the campaign plods on.

Nielson says that many of the issues Johnson is pushing — some of which fall along the more libertarian bent of the political spectrum — easily match those of New Hampshire GOP voters, who are known for their less-government-the-better attitude.

"The opportunity for us is for Gary to get noticed, to get heard," Nielson says. "When people hear him, they like him."

tburr@sltrib.com



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