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Why this independent presidential candidate is hoping the center can hold

Evan McMullin hopes that a lack of public enthusiasm for the front-runners could send the election to a vote in the House of Representatives.

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Evan McMullin, an independent candidate hoping for a House of Representatives path to the presidency, talks with the Deseret News and KSL editorial board in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 10.

Weston Kenney/The Deseret News/AP/File

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In 2016, one of the most ordinary sights of the presidential electoral seasons is exotic.

On Aug. 8, former Republican policy chief in the House and ex-CIA officer Evan McMullin announced an independent bid – typically the province of the American political spectrum’s farther ends – as a center-right alternative to GOP nominee Donald Trump.

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His campaign is an obvious long shot. It may also be an effort to preserve a certain strain of Republican orthodoxy, one that mixes religion-inspired convictions on issues like abortion with a free-market globalism that emphasizes US preeminence as a military power and trade partner.

“I think [the campaign is] saying, ‘We realize that we’re in trouble and if we want to survive, we cannot let this guy who’s parading himself as the new face of the Republican party do well at all, because if he does, he could fundamentally damage our brand,” said Steve Jarding, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and longtime Democratic campaign consultant, in an early-August interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Mr. McMullin, a Mormon and former staffer to the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, has mounted a zero-hour effort to get his name on ballots, with successes in his home state of Utah as well as in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Arkansas, reported Deseret News.

Like Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, another long-shot candidate, he’s staking his hopes on an unusual path to the White House: both are hoping that Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will fall short of obtaining the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. If that happens, the contest would pass into the House of Representatives, whose 435 members would then cast a ballot for one of the three candidates with the most electoral votes.

On Aug. 22, ABC cited a McMullin campaign memo describing that strategy.

“Once in the House, against the backdrop of Trump and Clinton’s deeply divisive positions and after a strong electoral college showing, we believe Evan’s unifying message will prevail,” wrote chief strategist Joel Searby, according to the network.

When McMullin served as policy chief, he argued for a more forceful US military intervention in Syria, where a five-year civil war rages on.

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McMullin was also a key player in a 2014 effort by Syrian-opposition activists to bring Caesar, a defected Syrian military photographer who leaked some 55,000 images depicting abuses by the regime, to speak at a public hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McMullin clashed at times with State Department officials whom he suspected of holding up the hearing – and with FBI officials whom he felt weren’t moving fast enough to verify the leaked images.

A public hearing was “outside the understanding we had with the country of exile,” says Stephen Rapp, a US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues from 2009- 2015.

“We’d given the country … assurance that if they were in a position of protecting him, we would be very careful – no press stakeouts where someone would get a shot of his face.”

State Department officials on the Syria desk and regional bureau pushed to close the hearing to the public, he says. That raised suspicions that the Obama administration was trying to keep a potentially explosive hearing under wraps, according to a 2015 article in the Daily Beast.

Ambassador Rapp says he held discussions with McMullin on several occasions about Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s use of torture and chemical weapons.

“He wanted very much to see accountability and wanted the US to take a tough position against the Assad government and its allies,” Rapp says.