The candidate sits at his home in Newport Beach, California, a white-haired 75-year-old in a blue Polo shirt and slippers at his kitchen table. A pleasing green bush sprouts behind him. He faces a camera mounted on a pile of old textbooks, ready to address the convention. “I never in my life,” he says later, “thought I’d be involved in a presidential debate while wearing my bedroom slippers.”

The upside of campaigning during a pandemic, according to Judge Jim Gray, is not having to strap his feet into wingtips or oxfords. It’s more casual, much like how he decided to run to begin with. Two months later, Jim is blitzing to the finish. That’s what brings him to the Libertarian National Convention, here in the breakfast nook.

He used to be a California Superior Court judge. He still does mediation. He only stepped in to run when the man he supported dropped out, and his staff asked Jim to take his place. He’d campaigned before, as Gary Johnson’s running mate in 2012. He’d also run for Congress — as a Republican — and the Senate. But this race couldn’t be more different. 

Like his opponents, Jim is running blind. There’s no precedent. No manual. And the usual challenges are even more complicated. Starting with cash. He hosted only one in-person fundraiser. He drove a golf cart from his house to a grassy area near Newport Bay, set up a couple of folding camp chairs, and talked to a single donor who happened to be in the area while sipping wine with boat shoes and no socks.

Jim Gray, right, holds his only in-person donor meeting during his campaign for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination. | Seth Levy

On the bright side, it is cheaper to campaign when you can’t travel. The “event of his week,” in the middle of a primary election involved parking outside a McDonald’s, rolling down his window and talking with his daughter-in-law’s father. Outside of that, he’d leave the house for walks with his wife and dog — a golden retriever named Nixie — after reading his morning paper, but the campaign flowed through various staging posts around his house.

There’s a spot at the kitchen table, meant to evoke dignity and officialness. Another on his couch for comfort. Another on a stool in front of his piano and art collection, meant to be more casual. Although that one he used only once; the stool hurt his back. 

His hours were scattered, across time zones. His campaign manager worked 15-hour days for the last two weeks, trying to keep the burden off Jim, who did enough debates to lose count — eight or nine, he thinks — without a single audience. His staff arranged interviews and scheduled virtual appearances and facilitated the proud Libertarian ask-me-anything sessions with state delegates, which usually ended the day. “I’ll bet you dollars to donuts,” Jim says, “that no way will Biden or Trump ever submit themselves to AMA’s over the course of this campaign.”

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On Day 2 of the convention, Jim reiterated the pitch he thought came through in the final debate. “If you want someone different, if you want somebody that has a plan, you have only Judge Jim Gray,” he said. 

The loser in each round of voting is dropped from the next, and votes are recast until one candidate wins a majority. When Jim finished the first round in fifth place, out of six, he knew it was over. So he got to work on a concession speech. “The delegates made a mistake,” he observes later, “but they had every right to.”

So he sits in the kitchen, his blue Polo unbuttoned, and calmly endorses Jo Jorgensen — who ends up winning the nomination. He concludes with a dry, prepared call for unity.

But that evening, in a virtual meeting with staffers all over the country, something remarkable happens. For once, Judge Jim speaks without barriers. He thanks them. He assures them they’ve made a difference. And his voice cracks.

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