Gary Johnson’s Big Breakthrough

The former New Mexico governor has just landed a spot in the next presidential debate Thursday night. Howard Kurtz on why that could take the heat off Perry and Romney.

09.20.11 7:38 PM ET

Gary Johnson, the Republican presidential candidate who has labored in obscurity, is about to get his moment in the spotlight—for one night, at least.

Johnson will be included in Thursday’s Fox News debate in Orlando, the first time he will share a stage with his eight rivals—over the objections of the Florida Republican Party.

The former New Mexico governor won the right to participate, according to Fox sources, by cracking 1 percent in the latest five national polls in which he was included—Fox News, CNN, McClatchy-Marist, ABC, and Quinnipiac—which was the criterion the network had set for inclusion.

Johnson is a quirky character, a libertarian who wants to legalize marijuana and is opposed to a border fence to stop illegal immigration. But he has attracted a passionate if tiny following while mostly flying below the media’s radar.

His presence in the debate could help the top two candidates, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, by diluting the airtime available to the other contenders. Or he could help rough up Perry by joining in the attacks on the Texas governor, though on many issues he would be staging his assault from the left.

Perhaps Johnson will even persuade the mainstream press to start taking him seriously.