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Libertarians pick Johnson and Weld ticket after close contest

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks to supporters and delegates at the National Libertarian Party Convention on May 27 in Orlando. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

ORLANDO -- William Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts who made a late-career leap to the Libertarian Party, won its vice presidential nomination Sunday after a close and raucous convention vote.

"This is a national ticket," Weld said. "We can offer something meaningful and realistic to the country."

Weld's nomination, secured after a day of drama and in-person lobbying, gave the 45-year-old party the most electorally experienced ticket in its history. Gary Johnson, a two-term governor of New Mexico, won the party's presidential nomination for the second time. He made two trips to the stage of the convention, held at Orlando's Rosen Centre, to ask delegates not to write off Weld as a latecomer or interloper.

"You trusted me with the nomination," Johnson said. "I don't want to have to be debating my vice presidential candidate in this election. Bill Weld resigned from his law firm for what will be a five-month un-paying job going forward."

But Weld was a heavy carry for a party divided into moderate and radical factions, and highly suspicious of converts. (An exception is made for former congressman Ron Paul (Tex.), who won the party's 1988 nomination, but returned to office as a Republican.) Several delegates said they had intended to support Johnson and wavered after he persuaded Weld to join the ticket.

"A lot of people have felt let down by some of Gary Johnson's not particularly Libertarian positions," said Caryn Ann Harlos, a Colorado delegate who backed Muslim Libertarian activist Will Conley. "It would help him if he has a member of the radical wing on the ticket."

Johnson's campaign repeatedly argued that Weld, and Weld alone, would open up resources and media attention. At a news conference after Johnson's victory, Libertarian National Committee Chairman Nicholas Sarwark said there had been "back-channel" talks with the Koch network to support a Johnson-led ticket.

"In 1983, they shifted strategy and went to the Republican Party in an attempt to fix it," Sarwark said. "It is not fixable." The Kochs, he said, would be welcome back "if they want to have a political investment in this country to advance Libertarian ends."

The Kochs' legacy inside the LP was controversial, for just that reason. In 1983, the Kochs did not just leave the party -- their wing was banished by more radical members. This year, Weld's path was complicated by minor candidates, some of whom had gotten into politics as supporters of Johnson. Alicia Dearn, a Missouri lawyer, had previously worked on Johnson's 2012 campaign in the Midwest. Larry Sharpe, an African American business consultant from New York, had worked on Johnson's Our America PAC and was inspired to run to change the party's image.

Before the first ballot, Dearn was endorsed by defeated presidential candidate Austin Petersen; Sharpe was endorsed by John McAfee, the presidential candidate who'd run third. When the time came for her own nominating speech, Dearn instead gave a meandering statement of principle and invited Weld onstage to restate his commitment to the party.

"Ultimately, this is not about any individual person," said Dearn. "This is about the party."

Although some radical delegates heckled Dearn, she did not use that moment to endorse Weld. On the first ballot, Weld won 426 votes, eight short of a majority; Sharpe won 264 votes. Just 869 total votes were cast, down from 928 in the final round of the presidential contest.

That gave the party's radicals one more chance to derail Weld -- and they took it. Will Coley announced the end of his campaign, and used the time allotted to him to read a letter the New York Republican Party had sent Weld in 2006, successfully talking him out of becoming the Libertarian Party's gubernatorial nominee.

"This is someone who sold his soul to the GOP and sold our ballot access in New York City," Coley said. "He had his opportunity to prove himself, and he failed." A man bounded behind Coley, waving a Sharpe sign, as Coley promised that the novice candidate would bring "electricity" to the ticket.

The delegates heard next from Derrick Grayson, a Georgia Republican activist and perennial candidate whose last effort was suspended over campaign violations. "Everybody who voted for me, vote for Sharpe," he said. "When you go with individuals who have violated the Constitution in any fashion, you have sold your soul to them."

In a matter of moments, Sharpe became the hero of the party's rebels. "He's a brilliant man," said Darryl Perry, a New Hampshire Free State Project activist who said he'd met Sharpe for the first time in April.

Dearn took the stage again, to make clear what had been murky: She endorsed Weld.

"Thirty pieces of silver," yelled a delegate from California.

The confusion and drawn-out nature of the second ballot persuaded the convention managers to start the next business, the election of the national party chairman, while the vote continued. That led to an unexpected fiasco, when a stunt candidate used his full five minutes to strip down to a thong and dance, as C-SPAN cameras rolled. The protests from delegates who wanted the party to condemn the display were halted to report the results of the vice presidential race.

This time, 872 votes were cast, 441 of them for Weld, allowing him to squeak by the 50 percent he needed to win. Sharpe had won 409 votes, and ended his campaign with a short speech.

"I am 100 percent back in the game for Gary Johnson," said Sharpe, who never mentioned Weld's name.