Early in CNN's Libertarian presidential town hall on Wednesday, moderator Chris Cuomo decided to play a word-association game.
"Hillary Clinton," he called out.
Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for president, went through several seconds of facial contortions before finally settling on this: "a wonderful public servant."
You could tell Johnson didn't really want to play this game. His various pained expressions made it obvious. Plus, he had already said, in an answer to a previous question, that he didn't plan to "engage in any sort of name-calling" aimed at either of the presumptive major-party nominees.
Yet Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, faces a harsh reality: He might not like answering questions about Clinton or Donald Trump — he'd much rather talk about his own views — but he is seen as most newsworthy in the context of a match-up between the most unpopular Democratic and Republican standard-bearers in modern history.
Let's face it: Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, didn't land this live, prime time spot on a major cable channel — a first for Libertarian candidates — because the media thinks they have a real shot to win the White House. They got themselves on CNN by being Clinton and Trump alternatives/spoilers.
Thus, their 75-minute session included questions like these:
For the people who have negative feelings about Trump and Clinton, why should they be positive about your ticket? (Cuomo)
Do you agree with Clinton when she says Trump is not a legitimate businessman? (Cuomo)
The return from Trump was that Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt person to ever run for president. Is that a view that you would embrace? (Cuomo)
If you have the choice, Trump or Clinton, which one would you pick? And who do you think is going to be a better president? (Audience)
Clinton and Trump were not in attendance, but they were the backdrop for much of the discussion.
Johnson seems to understand that this is the price of exposure — and he needs exposure. He's polling at 8.6 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics average, which is quite good for a third-party candidate but still well short of the 15 percent he needs to get into the general election debates in the fall. He called those debates the "Super Bowl of politics" on Wednesday and talked about the importance of media coverage in his effort to qualify and to raise enough money to compete.
"It is a different kind of campaign — earned media, social media — and we're looking to take advantage, as much advantage as we can on that," Johnson said.
Weld might have done the better job of taking advantage when he ditched the ticket's no-name-calling mantra for a moment and labeled Trump a "huckster." That one word generated headlines in the Boston Globe, Washington Examiner, Newsmax and elsewhere.
For playing along with the word-association game — and answering other questions related to Clinton and Trump — Johnson did receive opportunities to explain his positions. He wasn't always ready. At one point, he said, "if I could wave a magic wand, I would eliminate income tax, I would eliminate corporate tax, I would abolish the IRS, and I would replace it all with one federal consumption tax." Cuomo pressed Johnson on how such a plan would work.
CUOMO: The devil is a little bit in the details, governor, if you want to address this part of it. The big problem with doing what you're doing is you wind up cutting the amount of revenues that government has to work with.
JOHNSON: No, actually, it's revenue-neutral. The whole proposal ...
CUOMO: That's not so — according to economists, that's not so easy to achieve.
JOHNSON: Well, then — well, maybe not. But ...
CUOMO: Because you're doing — because why? Just to give you the context, why: If you say — the fair tax number that's usually thrown out is 28 percent. This would be your consumption tax. So you're automatically reducing the 39 percent [income tax] from the top level down. That creates an issue about how you want to distribute the tax burden. But ...
JOHNSON: You're getting a little too into the weeds here.
This was Johnson's chance to explain his tax plan to a major news outlet, in front of a live audience, and he balked. "I think we're getting too in the weeds here," he repeated. "The bottom line is that we're going to look to make this revenue neutral."
The press is paying attention to Johnson and the Libertarian Party like never before — largely because of the two other candidates in the race. But among the many questions about Clinton, Trump and whether he can actually play spoiler, a few inquiries do invite Johnson to explain what he stands for. He has to be prepared when the opportunities come his way.