Bill Had His Al, and Hillary Might Have Her Bill

.A wonkish Bill Richardson gives the teleprompter a workout.
.A wonkish Bill Richardson gives the teleprompter a workout. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 28, 2007

Running for the vice presidency is a delicate operation, but Bill Richardson seems to be getting the hang of it.

The New Mexico governor is running for president, of course, but should that fail he has already mastered the first responsibility of the running mate: Don't overshadow the top of the ticket. This trait was in evidence yesterday when Richardson gave a lunchtime foreign policy speech in Washington at the exact moment Hillary Clinton was giving one of her own.

Leading a detailed, hour-long discussion about Iran in which words such as "fissionable" and "Abrahamic dialogue" were invoked, Richardson demonstrated why he is running a distant fifth for the Democratic presidential nomination, and why, in a CNN poll released this week, 54 percent of respondents had either never heard of him or had no opinion of him.

Clinton's speech was in a gilded ballroom of the Willard hotel, where waiters served roasted chicken and orzo salad at tables decorated with blue hydrangeas coordinated with the candidate's blue pantsuit. The Post's Anne Kornblut counted more than a dozen television cameras vying for the best angle.

Richardson's speech was at the National Guard Memorial Museum, where attendees balanced on their laps plastic boxes containing tuna sandwiches and bags of potato chips. Two television cameras had the place to themselves.

Clinton, speaking to the Center for a New American Security, was introduced by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. Former White House chief of staff John Podesta sat in the front row. Richardson, speaking to the Center for National Policy, was introduced by former congressman Tim Roemer. Another former White House chief of staff, Mack McLarty, attended Richardson's speech -- but McLarty is already backing Clinton.

"I'm very proud to be Mack McLarty's second choice in this race," Richardson said.

"Good position to be in," Roemer judged.

Indeed. Richardson, a former congressman and Clinton Cabinet official, is in the single digits in the polls. But his vast résumé, his experience running a state, and his status as a Latino and a Westerner all make him an ideal complement to the relative newbies like Hillary Clinton who are leading the pack. (Albright even joked about Clinton's greenness, noting the honor for a "second-term junior senator" to be invited to such a forum.) If Richardson makes it through the campaign without antagonizing the front-runner, he has a decent chance of sharing the stage at the Democratic convention.

"In this presidential race, I know I'm not a rock star," Richardson confided to his audience yesterday.

Richardson's speech -- which occupied nine single-spaced pages and had the warning "3,325 words" at the top of the text distributed by the campaign-- lulled the crowd of 200 into utter silence. Eyelids drooped. Listeners shifted in their seats. Richardson plodded on. Reading from the teleprompter, he heard himself saying, "What I have outlined tonight," then revised: "Tonight? This afternoon."

Clinton took no questions after her speech -- too risky for a front-runner. Richardson took plenty, including one from a ponytailed blogger in the second row. "You've laid out this great policy, a lot of intricate detail, to a bunch of policy wonks," he said. "How do you make this policy that you laid out today more sexy?"

Richardson answered with the sad story of the dark horse. "I don't have the money that the other candidates do, but I'm prepared," he said. "I have the experience. I have the plan." Richardson went on to complain about the candidate forums. "They had a question on Iran in the second debate -- they never got to me," he lamented. "In fact, they never got to me on anything because they were trying to provoke the three top tier."

"A lot of it is going to be slow," he allowed, but "I believe the American voters are a lot smarter than we give them credit for." Presumably he was not talking about the 31 percent of American voters who had never heard of him.

Clinton's and Richardson's speeches had much in common yesterday; Clinton spoke about "engaging with those with whom we disagree" and Richardson argued "that we must talk to the Iranians with no preconditions." But they departed on style: Richardson ponderous, Clinton platitudinous.

Clinton, who couldn't resist a mention that "I was with Warren Buffett last night," served bons mots: how "we have to begin believing again in our goodness and our greatness," how "we can forge a new American security for this new century," and how the Bush administration "foundered at the nexus of ideology and intransigence."

Richardson was not so polished. When an attempt at a joke fell flat, the candidate added: "That's supposed to be funny." He could be heard to utter phrases such as "I revert back to the Nunn-Lugar initiatives, which have been underfunded," and "the IAEA naturally has the lead on nuclear issues," and "there are at least six major reasons why Iran is strategically significant." When he finally uttered the words "in conclusion," Richardson chuckled, perhaps realizing the challenge he had presented to his listeners.

But it was all part of the plan: For the aspiring vice president, weighty is sexy.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company