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The view from the second tier

Meet Democrat Bill Richardson. He sure wants to meet you.

June 09, 2007|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.H. — Pauline Chabot raced down the steamy hallway, struggling to catch up with the presidential candidate. He had just brought a crowd of Democrats to its feet, cheering, and all she wanted was to shake his hand, wish him well, this man with so much going for him.

He's smart, and he's funny, and he's Latino. He believes in diplomacy, and has so darn much experience. He is Bill Richardson, and Chabot has a bright, bright vision for his future.

Only it's not the one Richardson has for himself. "I tend to think of him as a vice president in the end," she said, smiling.

This is what it means to be a second-tier candidate with a first-tier resume, to travel the early primary states with lofty dreams and lowly poll numbers. This is what it means to ask for voters' confidence in one breath and their patience in the next.

This is what it means to be Bill Richardson, to run for America's top job and be asked, as he was on Monday in suburban Chicago: "What about the people who have suggested ... that if you can't get out of the second tier, you'd be an awfully good running mate for somebody?"

"No, I'm not running for vice president," the New Mexico governor replied gamely. "I've been in Washington. I've had good Cabinet positions. So I'll go home. But I'm gonna win this race. I'm a tortoise. Slowly. Progress. Moving forward.... The first primary is seven months away."

Richardson may liken himself to Aesop's famous reptile, all slow and steady wins the race. But on the campaign trail one recent long weekend, he behaved more like the Energizer bunny -- going and going and going.

In New Mexico and New Hampshire, Iowa, Illinois and Arizona. At fundraisers, a house party, and a major debate, a state Democratic convention and a Midwestern PrideFest. Wooing gays and lesbians, African Americans and Latinos, union members, voters, nonvoters, children.

Maybe it was an outbreak of his well-known workaholism; Richardson gets by on five hours of sleep, often nabbed these days on a chartered jet, zipping between campaign stops. Or maybe it was simply what a candidate must do when he's No. 4, at best, of eight hopefuls vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, and when everyone ahead of him is rolling in money.

Either way, he gave speeches, answered questions, posed for pictures, signed autographs. He sweated through a good dress shirt, French-blue fabric darkening to royal as the day warmed. He even sang soul on the radio with Ali Ollie Woodson of Temptations fame. "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May." (Memo to politician: Keep your day job.)

And he shook hands, lots of hands. As the proud holder of a Guinness World Record for most hands shaken in eight hours (13,392), Richardson will grab anything with fingers that moves in his peripheral vision.

But he doesn't just shake these hands. The congressman-turned-U.N. ambassador-turned-Energy Secretary-turned-Western governor has a very specific personal technique. It's outlined in his autobiography, "Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life," complete with visual aids.

"I take very seriously the ability to connect with someone through a handshake," Richardson said in a recent interview. "You grab the elbow, you shake the hand, you look straight in the eye, maybe delay the eye contact. It gives a person the sense you're connecting with them. The worst thing you can do is look over their shoulder. It's the easiest way to lose a vote."

And those hand sanitizing gels ubiquitous on the campaign trail? In a word, "insulting." Don't worry, moms, he washes often. But seeing a candidate clean up on the trail, he says, "sort of destroys the intimacy of the personal connection."

And connection is what Richardson is all about. Sure, he gives a pretty good speech, as Pauline Chabot saw last weekend at the New Hampshire state Democratic convention here, when he marched into the sweltering auditorium of Rundlett Middle School surrounded by supporters, a flag-waving war protester and an education enthusiast in a full-length apple costume of heavy red velour.

The rollicking delegates cheered his plans for energy independence, higher pay for teachers and universal healthcare, for shuttering prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and bringing the troops home from Iraq. They applauded as he laid out his campaign strategy: "I am here, grass roots, door to door, house to house."

One of those houses was a 160-year-old clapboard that belongs to Jim and Gayle Stevenson, where Richardson competed with a flock of noisy sparrows at an early morning neighborhood get-together. He gripped and grinned and outlined his stands on everything from healthcare to education.

"I think he makes some sense," said investment advisor Bob Wilson, after a short speech by Richardson and a couple of long handshakes. "More than the rest of them. He's coming up in the polls, isn't he?"

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