Like Ron Paul, whom he endorsed in 2008, Johnson is an unabashed libertarian-and, in some ways, a purer one (he’s pro-choice, pro-free trade, and pro-immigration). So, while he’s no culture warrior or foreign policy hawk—he opposed the war in Iraq and the troop surge in Afghanistan—he outflanks any Republican on fiscal issues, proposing an immediate, across-the-board 43 percent spending cut. “We’re on the precipice,” he says, of the country’s finances. To illustrate what lies in the abyss, at times he flashes his favorite prop: a $100 trillion bill from Zimbabwe that he keeps in his wallet…

What does Johnson make of Palin? On a drive through the foothills of New Hampshire, I ask him. Riding shotgun, he turns the question around on me. “Um, I guess some people think she’s folksy,” I say from the backseat. “Well, at first she strikes you as folksy,” he shoots back. “And then you realize: She might be running for president of the United States! And then, don’t we have the obligation to tell her what a terrible idea that is?” Cupping his hands to his mouth, he brays, “Sarah! We love you! Don’t run!” He also performs a rendition of the “deer-in-the-headlights” interview she did on “The O’Reilly Factor,” about the BP oil spill…

Gary Johnson has his doubters, to say the least. “I think Lyndon Johnson has as much chance of winning the Republican nomination in 2012,” says veteran political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg. He’s right, given Johnson’s heresies on virtually all non-economic issues. That said, it’s not implausible that Johnson could gain traction (perhaps more than Paul did) in New Hampshire and other libertarian-minded states.