Richardson's Bid Is Now Official

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

LOS ANGELES, May 21 -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson established another landmark in the 2008 campaign Monday, becoming the first Hispanic Democrat to seek the presidency of the United States.

Richardson, 59, the son of a Mexican mother and half-Mexican father, made his candidacy official at a crowded news conference in the same downtown Los Angeles hotel in which John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic nomination in 1960. Richardson emphasized his Hispanic heritage, his extensive diplomatic and political experience, and his depth of knowledge on issues, particularly foreign policy.

Toggling between Spanish and English, Richardson delivered a lively speech that outlined his proposals for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, encouraging energy efficiency, providing health insurance to more Americans, boosting the middle class and addressing immigration. He presented himself as a pragmatist whose record in New Mexico demonstrates his ability to pass legislation.

"This nation needs a leader with a proven track record and an ability to bring people together to tackle our problems here at home and abroad," Richardson said, speaking from a podium in a Millennium Biltmore Hotel ballroom packed with supporters. "I am that person -- not because I say so, but because of what I have done."

Yet Richardson, a colorful and boisterous pol, also gave a glimpse of his political strategy for a race that has so far favored better-known candidates such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.). He said that the accelerated Democratic nominating process is set to give him an advantage.

As a former congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of energy, Richardson is among the most experienced candidates in a crowded field. To distinguish himself, he intends to campaign aggressively in the first four states with a say in the process, with particular emphasis on Nevada, the only one of the early states with a significant Hispanic population (somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of the Democratic electorate, compared with an almost nonexistent Hispanic voting population in New Hampshire and South Carolina). If Richardson emerges from Nevada with a strong showing, he could stage a battle for Latino voters in Florida on Jan. 29 and the states that follow with contests on Feb. 5, including California and New York, perhaps altering the dynamic of the entire nominating process, according to numerous Democratic strategists.

"I call it 'Hispanic Tuesday,' " said Adam J. Segal, the director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University's Washington Center for the Study of American Government. "The influence that Hispanic voters could have on the early primaries is much bigger and much more exciting than it was just a few years ago in 2004. It's so simple: It has to do with early primary states moving up."

Clinton appears to be winning the Hispanic vote at this juncture: Her name recognition is extremely high in that group as in all others, and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, remains popular among Latinos. Hillary Clinton has already won the endorsement of some important Hispanic officials, particularly California State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez. Clinton's campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, received the Latina of Excellence Award from Hispanic magazine on Monday night.

Henry Cisneros, a secretary of housing and urban development during the Clinton administration, who is helping organize Hispanic voters on Richardson's behalf, and another former Clinton official, Mickey Ibarra, hosted a fundraiser for Richardson.

Still, Richardson -- who has struggled throughout his career to convince Hispanics that he is one of them -- said in an interview: "I am not running as a Hispanic candidate, because I would lose. I've got to appeal to all voters. I'm running as a governor who is proud to be Hispanic." He added later: "I don't believe in running a truly ethnic campaign."

At one point, when asked a question about his heritage, Richardson offered to answer in English or Spanish -- then shifted into French.

He said he is pursuing dual tracks, reminding Hispanic voters of their shared heritage (trying to "get more Hispanics to know that I'm Hispanic, which is a slight problem," he admitted; "the name doesn't help") while also convincing the rest of the electorate that he is experienced and sufficiently mainstream to be chief executive.

Lionel Sosa, a Hispanic Republican who helped organize Hispanic voters for George W. Bush but is now assisting Richardson, said in an interview that the Richardson name has dampened what would otherwise be instant support for the New Mexico governor. "If his name was Bill Garcia, then every Latino would have been focused on him already," Sosa said.

Hispanics made up about 8 percent of the electorate in 2004. While about 72 percent of Latinos supported Bill Clinton for president in 1996, only about 62 percent supported Al Gore in 2000, and just 53 percent backed Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004, according to exit polls. In the 2006 congressional midterm elections, the trend reversed, with 69 percent of Hispanics voting for Democratic candidates..

In a history-making first quarter of fundraising this year, Richardson raised $6.2 million -- a strong showing for a second-tier candidate but still less than half of what Edwards raised and far short of the more than $26 million raised by Obama, who came in first place. Other Democrats in the race include Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), and former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska).

Richardson, an international troubleshooter with experience in war-torn regions from North Korea to Darfur, called for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He repeatedly depicted the actions of the Bush administration as disastrous.

"The challenges we face are not acts of God or accidents of fate," Richardson said in his opening remarks. "They're man-made, and they're deliberate. Whether it will be willful ignorance or an ignorant will, we are left with the ravages of an administration that will take years to rectify. But we can do it."

On immigration, Richardson described the current proposal advancing in Congress as a "step in the right direction," but he objected to what he said are provisions that would separate families and force illegal immigrants to return home before gaining citizenship. "No fence ever built has stopped history, and a border fence won't, either," Richardson said. "If you build a 10-foot fence, someone will use an 11-foot ladder."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company