The Governor: Bill Richardson
Bill Richardson has the most coveted title in the Democratic field: governor. It's supposedly the best path to the presidency. Add to that former congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and secretary of energy. As President Clinton said when he nominated Richardson to the latter post: "If there's one word that comes to mind when I think of Bill Richardson, it really is energy."
In Iowa, the New Mexico governor has consistently polled behind the three front-runners but ahead of his two seasoned Washington rivals, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Christopher J. Dodd, occupying all by himself "the middle tier," as Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen defined it.
Richardson, 60, draws his sharpest distinctions on Iraq. All the Democratic candidates agree that the war must end, but he has outlined the most ambitious timetable, vowing to bring U.S. troops home in a year. Richardson's plan is viewed by many experts as unrealistic, but he has made it the centerpiece of his campaign, returning to the Iraq crisis again and again on the stump.
Richardson raised the war issue on Thursday at the Des Moines Register debate, expressing concern that Iraq had been pushed to the sidelines as Democrats squabbled over domestic issues such as health care and education. "I am going to focus on one issue because I am concerned about the fact that in the media and in the last debate, the Iraq war was not discussed," Richardson interjected. "Somehow we are losing sight that this is the most fundamental issue affecting our country."
Richardson is a low-key campaigner who strides onstage in a rumpled sports jacket and cowboy boots, riffing about his life and ideas, answering every question with interest and concern. He has traveled throughout rural Iowa, courting conservative Democrats who like his executive bona fides and pro-gun background.
Richardson is a champion schmoozer. While campaigning for governor in 2002, he shook 13,392 hands in an eight-hour period, breaking former president Theodore Roosevelt's world record.
During his years in Congress, Richardson served as a special envoy on sensitive international missions, securing the release of hostages, American service members, and prisoners in North Korea, Iraq, Cuba and Sudan.
Richardson is half Hispanic, and as a child he lived in Mexico. He said his bicultural identity "has enhanced my ability to be a public official, to be a diplomat, to understand other points of view."
The distinction is particularly pronounced on the subject of immigration. Richardson addresses it more confidently than other Democrats, asserting that tougher border security and a path to citizenship must go hand in hand. Whatever the crowd, his observations about immigrants draw applause. "If you explain things rationally," Richardson said, "voters will understand."
-- Shailagh Murray