Politics & Policy

Another Gov. Bill to the White House

Could Richardson do it?

If there were a presidential candidate available who had deep experience in both state and federal government, the executive and legislative branch, and foreign and domestic affairs, would he be rated among the top of the field? How about if the same candidate had the retail political skills to match his policy experience and came from a bellwether state in a battleground part of the country? And what if this person had the sort of national contacts that are a must to raise the significant sums necessary for a run for the White House.

And did we mention he’s part of the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, is bilingual, and has a record of getting crossover votes?

We speak, of course, of Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Skeptics and insiders may deride him as a mere “resume candidate” who only looks great “on paper.” But that CV is worth a look: Tufts undergrad followed by a masters from his alma mater’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy; staff stints at the State Department and on Capitol Hill; elected at 35 to the House where he’d spend 15 years; successive appointments as ambassador to the U.N. and secretary of Energy; easy election and reelection as governor and a term as chair of the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA).

Beyond this litany is an engaging and likeable man who is a force of nature on the campaign trail. Richardson’s name graces The Guinness Book of World Records for most hands shaken by a politician in a single day (13,392; Teddy Roosevelt, the previous record-holder, could only muster 8,513).

Richardson seems to enjoy and excel at wholesale politics as much. He ran the Democrats’ convention in Boston in 2004 and, more recently, served for two years atop the DGA. This second post allowed him to visit 15 states to campaign for his party’s gubernatorial candidates — and to stock his already-bursting Rolodex with new friends in new places — in what was a very successful two years for Democratic governors.

Added to all this, New Mexico is one of only three states in America that went for a different presidential candidate in 2004 than in 2000. Mirroring the nation’s popular vote, former Vice President Al Gore just barely edged out President Bush in the “Land of Enchantment” before Bush had a tad bit more convincing of a win there over Sen. John Kerry. Similarly, New Mexico supported Reagan in the 1980s and Clinton in the 1990s.

What’s more, the once strongly Republican mountain west is now widely seen as more politically competitive. Democrats have managed to make inroads in nearly every state in the region in recent years — patterns that would likely continue on the national level with one of their own leading the ticket.

And Richardson’s prospects in a New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado would certainly be helped by demographics. Each of these four states (total electoral votes = 29) has a significant Hispanic population. The son of an American father and Mexican mother, Richardson grew up in Mexico City and speaks Spanish fluently.

Richardson also embraces the politics of the west. He’s pro-gun (one of only four Democratic governors to win the NRA’s endorsement in his reelection bid this year), has cut taxes, and most importantly has been supportive of business while also protecting the land. Such policies have brought ranchers and hunters into the fold, many of them Republicans and conservative-leaning independents, and helped him garner 68 percent of the vote in his reelection bid this year.

And despite his New England pedigree, Richardson successfully affects the style of the region. He can pull off a cowboy hat and bolo tie and appear in a spaghetti western-style campaign commercial without it looking too forced. He also talks in the direct and occasionally salty manner of the west.

This style is why, in part, he’s dismissed by many observers. Like another governor from the southwest who sought the presidency, Richardson is seen as being immature and unserious. As with President Bush, Richardson has an endless supply of charm and a politician’s preternatural gift for how to work a room and recall a face. But also like Bush, Richardson’s one-on-one abilities are diminished by his inability to mask, for example, showing disinterest when he isn’t interested.

Appearing with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean at a post-election press conference in Washington following winning gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia last year, Richardson made no attempt to stifle the urge to make funny faces at staff and friends across the room while Dean was explaining the party’s success from the podium.

He’s also prone to saying in English that he won’t run for president right before saying en Espanol that he’s definitely in.

Stuart Rothenberg, the political analyst and prognosticator, has called it a “frat guy persona.” But Hotline editor Chuck Todd says Richardson’s jocularity is representative of something more serious — and more damaging.

“It’s all in how he carries himself personally that have the Democratic elites nervous about him,” observes Todd.

Richardson is not placed in the top tier with Clinton, Obama, and Edwards by the Democratic wise guys, Todd says, because “this Gov. Bill may resemble another Gov. Bill too much,” referring to that other famous former southwestern governor.

Dave Contarino, Richardson’s top aide, scoffs at such chatter.

“People call that authenticity,” argues Contarino. The governor has “an ability to connect with real people” and “doesn’t believe that a six-point policy paper is going to get it done.” If being undisciplined, the preferred euphemism, is “being a smiling, happy guy, we plead guilty,” Contarino adds. Anyways, “nobody works harder” (see the Guinness Book) and he’s “very steeped in the issues” (see the resume).

University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato agrees that Richardson could be formidable in what is a winnowing Democratic field.

“With the decisions by Mark Warner and Evan Bayh not to run, the field of truly credible, electable candidates is shrinking. The only three anti-Hillary contenders that meet those criteria are Edwards, Obama, and Richardson.”

Like Todd, however, Sabato sees the persistent talk about Richardson’s behavior as being his biggest obstacle. His conduct — public and private, many Democrats whisper — is what “everybody brings up in conversation” when poo-poo’ing the New Mexican’s chances, Sabato says.

But the past two occupants of the Oval Office are a testament to the fact that personal flaws need not be a bar to the presidency. And, hey, they didn’t have anywhere near this guy’s foreign-policy experience.

— Jonathan Martin is NRO’s political reporter.

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