06/03/2015 07:36 EDT | Updated 06/03/2016 05:59 EDT

Presidential hopeful wants U.S. to boldly go where all others have gone before: metric

WASHINGTON - It's too early to tell whether the newest U.S. presidential candidate might stand the heat of a campaign — but it's already clear he'd rather not feel it in Fahrenheit.

The latest participant in the 2016 race wants the U.S. to boldly go where pretty much everyone else in the world has gone before: he wants to make America go metric.

In announcing his presidential bid Wednesday, former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee made one of the first surprise promises of the race: Breaking the U.S.'s unshakable addiction to the imperial system.

The longshot Democratic candidate laid out a progressive platform, which he said included a desire to allow espionage whistleblower Edward Snowden to return home to the U.S.

He also proposed withdrawing from foreign military entanglements — and noted his vote against the Iraq war, back in 2002 when he was still a Republican before his later partisan switch.

Chafee was the only Republican at the time to vote against the war. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton — the overwhelming favourite in the current Democratic nomination race — supported the invasion.

He then made a pledge that instantly overshadowed everything else he said Wednesday.

"Here's a bold embrace of internalism," Chafee said during a Virginia speech.

"Let's join the rest of the world and go metric."

He noted that the U.S. is the only industrialized country to resist the call of the centimetre. The others, he said, are Myanmar and Liberia.

The U.S. tried to go metric 40 years ago, and it never stuck.

It actually passed a Metric Conversion Act in 1975, which set out a voluntary approach to transitioning away from the imperial system. It created a board to co-ordinate the switchover.

Needless to say, that voluntary approach failed. The system never caught on, Ronald Reagan disbanded the United States Metric Board in 1982, and Americans continue to live in a parallel universe measured in inches, a place where water freezes at 32 degrees and boils at 212.

But Chafee fondly recalled his experience in another place that did go metric: Canada.

After graduating from Brown University in 1975 with a degree in the classics, he studied horseshoe-making at Montana State University. He plied his trade for seven years, as a blacksmith at racetracks throughout the U.S. and Canada.

"I happened to live in Canada when they completed the process," Chafee said. "Believe me — it's easy.

"It doesn't take long before 34 degrees is hot."

That snippet of his speech caught lots of attention, with the social-media reaction to his announcement focused mainly on the metric system.

Many joked about it. One person tweeted a photo of a huge crowd and quipped that Chafee had started a mass movement.

A Guardian reporter wrote: "Metric system was one line in Chafee's speech but will be the top line. Lesson is if you give the press a centimeter, they take a kilometer."

Others argued the merits, for and against the metric system.

And some straddled the divide between the merits and mockery. One self-identified conservative Republican tweeted: "Clock still running since Chafee made those despicable comments & Hillary has yet to condemn him & disavow support for the metric system."