Jim Cole / AP file
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, shown announcing his plans to seek the Republican nomination for president April 21, 2011, in front of the Statehouse in Concord, N.H.
LAS VEGAS -- The Libertarian Party on Saturday chose former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, once a Republican White House hopeful, as its presidential candidate in the Nov. 6 election.
Johnson, who announced in December he would run for president as a Libertarian after mounting a long-shot candidacy for the Republican nomination, won 70 percent of the votes cast by 632 delegates at the party's convention in Las Vegas, Libertarian Party spokesman Stephen Gordon said.
Johnson, who became the front-runner after winning straw polls at 12 previous state debates, beat Air Force veteran R. Lee Wrights, after the field narrowed to two candidates from six at the start of the convention on Thursday.
"I am very humbled. This is just the start," Johnson told Reuters after securing the nomination of the Libertarian Party, whose philosophy is "minimum government, maximum freedom."
Third parties have traditionally fared poorly in the two-party U.S. political system long dominated by Republicans and Democrats.
The Libertarians' best presidential showing came in 1980 when nominee Ed Clark won 921,128 votes or 1.1 percent. In the 2008 election, party nominee Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman, got 523,686 votes or 0.4 percent.
Johnson, 59, is running on a platform that includes slashing government spending to balance the federal budget by 2013, as well as ending the war on drugs, beginning with the legalization of marijuana. He also supports the so-called "Fair Tax," which would replace the income tax with a 23 percent national sales tax.
Delegates said their preference for Johnson stemmed from his experience as Republican New Mexico governor from 1995 to 2003, which they said gave him a greater chance of success in a national election. Wrights had no prior political experience.
Democratic President Barack Obama is seeking re-election in the November election. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee.
Party officials hope they can count on supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul for votes in the general election. Paul's campaign has focused on issues favored by Libertarians like small government and a non-interventionist foreign policy, which
Paul, who ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988, is the last remaining Republican challenger to Romney. The Texas congressman is far behind in the polls and has not won a single nominating contest.
As New Mexico governor, Johnson vetoed so many bills - some 750 - that he was later nicknamed "Governor Veto" -- a record he referred to in a debate on Friday as evidence of his strong character.
Wrights, 53, avoided complex policy proposals. Asked about gun control, he said, "I don't know about the rest of y'all, but you don't want to be crawling into my window after midnight." On foreign policy, he said, "Stop being a nosy neighbor and start being a good neighbor."
Both spoke of abolishing multiple federal agencies. The crowd's favorite target was the Internal Revenue Service, but proposals to curb the Departments of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and Education were also greeted by applause.