Nearly every Republican politician -- especially those considering running for president -- is courting the tea party these days, but the movement's Paul supporters may not be won over by, say, Sarah Palin, or even Herman Cain. They like Paul for different reasons -- reasons that Johnson, a Paul '08 supporter himself, seems ready to supply.
Coincidentally, Johnson is probably the only likely 2012 aspirant, other than President Obama, whom you'll hear criticize the tea party -- something that, for the last two years, has been all but taboo in Republican circles.
"I hope that the Republican Party embraces the tea party, if you will, or that the tea party votes Republican," Johnson told me. "The tea party, at least I thought, initially, talked about limited constitutional government, but that seems to have caveats when it comes to the tea party, meaning we should cut spending, we should drastically reduce spending, but not Medicaid, not Medicare, not Social Security, not defense, and we oughtta build a fence when it comes to the border, and certainly not drug policy, and kind of on and on....
"There's a disconnect between liberty and freedom and the personal responsibility that goes along with that, as long as it's my liberty and freedom and not yours."
This morning, Johnson addressed the crowd at CPAC -- the annual three-day Conservative Political Action Conference, where presidential contenders routinely go, appearing as palmers before thousands of conservative activists (many of them students) in the large ballroom at the Marriott in Washington, D.C.'s residential Woodley Park neighborhood.
When I spoke with Johnson at American University in January, he told me he "was kind of looking to get egged and tomatoed in this whole process and get sent back" to New Mexico. Today's speech, in a way, provided a test of whether the audience would throw food.
But the crowd liked him -- even as he pushed some of his more controversial points.
"I really wanted to take a hard look at the war on drugs in this country, and I wanted to include legalization as a potential alternative to what we were doing," Johnson told the audience, to cheers.
If it's any indication of Ron Paul's effect on Republican politics, CPAC's young audience has taken on a more libertarian strain since his 2008 run. Last year, Paul won the presidential straw poll, to the surprise of many.
In 2012, the libertarians in the Republican party will be looking for somewhere to go. Paul has not yet said whether he intends to run.
A marijuana legalizer will probably not win the White House any time soon. Johnson himself says the nation is two years away from a tipping point on the issue, when it stops being "the one issue you can't talk about and get elected." According to that timeline, the tipping point will occur several months after the 2012 Election Day.