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Richardson enters presidential fray

A Democratic longshot, N.M.'s governor would be the first Latino to win the White House.

Recent Poll Gives Him 1%

January 22, 2007|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson jumped into the pack of Democratic White House hopefuls Sunday as a middle-of-the-road politician with a multifaceted resume who, if elected, would be the first president of Latino descent.

Richardson, 59, was born in Pasadena to a Mexican mother and an American father. Fluent in Spanish, he has courted and received Latino support over a career of more than 25 years in politics, while managing to avoid being pigeonholed as an ethnic politician.

"I believe the country would be ready for a woman president, an African American president, Hispanic president," Richardson said on ABC's "This Week," announcing the formation of an exploratory committee that enables him to begin raising money and hiring a campaign staff. "But I wouldn't run as a Hispanic candidate. I would run as an American, proud to be Hispanic, proud of my heritage."

Getting noticed will be his immediate challenge. Although Richardson's career in public service includes 14 years in the House and stints as United Nations ambassador and Energy secretary under President Clinton, he starts out in the back of a diverse pack, among the so-called second tier of Democratic candidates.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday and published Sunday, gave Richardson 1% of Democrats surveyed, far behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York (41%), who announced an exploratory committee Saturday; Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois (17%), who announced a committee Tuesday; and former Sen. John Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee (11%).

"I will outwork anybody," Richardson said. "I am a Westerner. I'm a governor."

Political insiders said it would be a miscalculation to dismiss Richardson's candidacy.

"In the course of a campaign, there are plenty of opportunities for a candidate with a compelling message, who is not as well-known, to go out there and gain support," said Democratic media consultant Anita Dunn. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean "at this point in 2004 had maybe 2%, 3%. Gov. Richardson clearly has an impressive resume; he's very smart, and works quite hard."

A case in point is when Richardson first ran for governor in 2002, pledging to shake 600 hands a day. According to the Almanac of American Politics, he wound up breaking Teddy Roosevelt's record of 8,513 by shaking 13,392 hands at the New Mexico State Fair and a tailgate party at the University of New Mexico on Sept. 16.

"He was not afraid to be an underdog at the beginning of his career, and he was successful," said Brian Sanderoff, an independent pollster in Albuquerque. "If in his mind he is thinking vice president, he's not sharing that with anybody. He's going for the win, whether it's realistic or not."

Said Richardson, who was reelected in November with 69% of the vote: "If I don't get the nomination, I'll come back and be governor."

On the Iraq war, Richardson supports a phased withdrawal of American troops, with diplomatic efforts to broker a peace among that country's warring ethnic and religious factions. He favors trying to talk to Iran and Syria to seek their help in ending the conflict. He supports redeploying American troops from Iraq to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"What we're doing now is not working," Richardson said. "The American people are against it. The surge that the president wants is going to cause more sectarian violence."

Richardson has some experience dealing with recalcitrant foreign regimes. He negotiated with the North Koreans, the Cubans and the Sudanese, and with the Taliban when it held sway over Afghanistan.

On domestic issues, he is somewhat to the right of many Democrats. He gets the endorsement of the National Rifle Assn., for instance.

On immigration, Richardson supports an overhaul of current laws to provide a path to citizenship for longtime illegal residents who can prove they are otherwise law-abiding. Although he chided the Democratic Party for allowing President Bush to make strong inroads among Latino voters in the 2004 election, it's unclear to what extent Richardson would command a following outside of New Mexico.

"We have a very credible woman running and a very credible African American, and a very credible Latino, but I don't think any block of voters will go to any of these candidates based on gender and ethnicity," said Dunn, the media consultant. "I do think Gov. Richardson clearly has the opportunity to appeal to Hispanic voters' sense of history."

Latino voters have helped Richardson get elected at every stage of his political career, but he has usually pursued a broad agenda in office, appealing to diverse constituencies.

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