Opinion writer

Evan McMullin announces his presidential campaign as an independent candidate last week in Salt Lake City. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is an unstable, bigoted, big-government isolationist. Hillary Clinton is an ethically challenged advocate of a large welfare state. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson is a small-government, free-market isolationist who wants to legalize drugs. So where is a center-right voter, someone looking for a candidate of sound character who believes in free markets but also strong U.S. leadership in the world, to go?

Evan McMullin, an independent Republican, says he’s their man. It’s important, he says, “for the sake of the country, but especially for Republicans,” to show they put the interests of the country first. His indictment of Trump is as devastating as any we have heard, in part because McMullin has served in the CIA and put himself in harm’s way in the war against Islamist terrorism. He has called Trump “inhumanand has said that “by undermining our ideals, he weakens us on a much larger scale than even a terrorist organization that might carry out these horrendous attacks.” He has argued that Trump is “weak” and his campaign is “melting down.”

McMullin is pro-free trade and wants border security but derides the idea of deporting 11 million people. He favors keeping Guantanamo Bay prison open and supports the Republican House plan on tax reform. Like many younger conservatives, he is pro-life but thinks that it is “time to move on” when it comes to gay marriage.

I spoke to him by phone this morning. On the issue of Trump’s pro-Russian clique of advisers, he says, “It’s certainly such a problem coming from the background I do. This is Moscow’s most successful intelligence operation.” He explains, “They must be beside themselves to have co-opted either willingly or unwillingly someone on the doorstep” of the presidency. McMullin points out that even before we knew the extent of his advisers’ Russian affiliations, Trump “aligned himself with Putin and other authoritarian people with whom he is simpatico.”

In Trump’s recent decision to install Stephen Bannon, head of the alt-right Breitbart News outlet, as his campaign’s chief executive, McMullin sees affirmation of his concerns about Trump. “It means just like in the primary he is willing to divide us for his own interests, maybe his business interests along racial, ethnic and religious lines.” He acknowledges the tactic works in the short run but argues that it’s not a winning formula. “It makes us weaker, not stronger.”

In a campaign with two cynical pols, McMullin is refreshingly enthusiastic and genuine, a word used by politicians who aren’t. “I’m very, very passionate. I love this country. I’ve put my life on the for this country.” He certainly is giving voice to those #NeverTrump Republicans who stand slack-jawed as they observe their party being corrupted by a charlatan, bigot and ignoramus.

He is not Pollyanna-ish about his chances, but he is serious. He’s on the ballot in Iowa and Utah so far. In Minnesota, he’s on the line for the Independence Party. “We’re going to pursue ballot access in all 50 states,” he says. “Ideally, we’d like to be on the ballot everywhere.” He is prepared to use petitions, legal challenges or write-in campaigns depending on the state requirements. Already on the ballot in Utah, where he was born and educated at Brigham Young University, he may help deprive Trump of a deep-red state. He declines to say whether he has had contact with Mitt Romney or Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). He tells me, “We’ve had many discussions with the LDS [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] community …  [and] with LDS leaders. We will have the support of many of them.”

As for the debates, he concedes, “We’d like to be there, but neither Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump are going to want me there.” He says Clinton won’t want him because he will go after her because of her affinity for centralized government, handling of classified material and “lying to the American people about Benghazi.” He says, “I saw Trump a mile away. I’ll stand up to him.”

McMullin understands that he is getting a very late start. “This is not what I intended for myself,” he says. He hoped for months that a big-name Republican would volunteer to run as an independent. “I only decided [to run] when it became painfully clear that no one else was going to do it.” He acknowledges, “The road ahead is tough, but we do believe there are multiple paths to victory, to get this to the House” if neither candidate reaches 270 electoral votes. He muses, “I don’t know what will happen with Donald Trump. In a week or two, when he is further imploding, maybe he pulls out.”

McMullin won’t say what he will do after the election if he doesn’t win. He does, however, sound like someone convinced that there is a place for people like him. “Eighty-two percent of Americans think we are on the wrong track. Forty-two percent are independents. Something is happening here,” he says emphatically. “I do believe the time has come for a new generation. We need new ideas, new leadership.” His biggest surprise so far? “The biggest thing is the response of the American people. So many people have responded forcefully and positively.” In the first week, he says he has 90,000 people signed up as donors and/or volunteers. “It’s far, far and away more than what I could ever have hoped for.”