Bill Richardson: Looking Like a Go for 2008

by Stuart Rothenberg June 19, 2006 · 12:01 AM EDT

Officially, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is focused on his November re-election race, even though it’s expected to be relatively easy. And as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Richardson also hopes to lead his party to a gain of at least a few more governorships.

But some Democratic insiders insist that Richardson has more on his mind than that. They say he is telling friends and political allies that he has decided to run for president in 2008.

When I spoke with the governor recently, he would only say, “After November, I will reassess my plan.” But Richardson, 58, has long been mentioned for higher office as part of a Democratic national ticket, and I’d be flabbergasted if he didn’t take the presidential plunge for 2008.

In 1984, less than two years after he was elected to a new Congressional district created by reapportionment and redistricting, Richardson already was being touted as a possible Senate candidate against Republican Sen. Pete Domenici.

Richardson never made that run, but he subsequently built an unusually impressive political résumé that includes everything from New Mexico Democratic Party executive director, Member of Congress, secretary of Energy, ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He even has served as a hostage-release negotiator.

Then, in 2002, he was elected governor of New Mexico.

More than 20 years ago, observers tagged Richardson as a political up-and-comer, and they were right.

The 1984 edition of the Almanac of American Politics said he “is obviously a young man in a hurry, and one with a well-developed sense of political strategy.” Only 10 years later, Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America referred to him as “one of the nation’s top Hispanic politicians.”

Now, savvy political insiders in the state give Richardson high marks as governor, praising his “bold initiatives,” his willingness to take on challenging issues and his ability to sell his agenda. “He is a huge salesman, and a very good one,” said one observer.

As governor, he has supported a state income tax cut for most New Mexico residents and has taken steps to cut the state’s considerable driving-while-intoxicated rate. He has declared 2006 the “Year of the Child” in the state and offered an agenda that promotes children’s health, education and safety — not a bad platform from which to launch a national campaign.

Whether because of Richardson’s policies or just plain good luck, New Mexico’s economy has been strong, another considerable asset if he makes a White House run.

The governor’s greatest asset as a presidential candidate is the breadth of his political experience. He has been in the political trenches as a political operative and as an aide to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; served as a legislator; had executive experience as governor; and has been involved in formulating and articulating U.S. foreign policy. Few other Democratic contenders are likely to have such experience.

What sets Richardson apart from other potential presidential hopefuls, however, is the fact that he is a Hispanic. Richardson’s mother was Mexican, and he was raised in Mexico City. He is fluent in Spanish and is very popular in the Hispanic community.

Richardson’s ethnicity could be a powerful asset in states such as New Mexico, Arizona, Florida and even Texas — all states with significant Hispanic populations, and all states carried by President Bush in 2004.

Richardson is also widely regarded as an extremely likable, down-to-earth guy. Unlike some recent (unsuccessful) Democratic presidential nominees who proved to be cold, distant and even artificial, the New Mexico Democrat connects with people.

But Richardson is not without his vulnerabilities.

He had to admit that he had misled people into believing that he was drafted by a Major League Baseball organization (the Kansas City Athletics) in 1966. When an investigation by the Albuquerque Journal found no evidence the he had been drafted by anyone, Richardson acknowledged that he might have been mistaken and was told that he could or would be drafted. Richardson pitched for Tufts University, a Division III school that is better known for its academics than its sports program.

More importantly, Washington, D.C., insiders who have observed Richardson for years raise questions about his self-discipline. They say he overextends himself and often loses focus. And they whisper that he hasn’t always carried himself in a style befitting a high elected official.

In December 2005, the Albuquerque Journal carried a front-page article on Richardson’s penchant for touching people.

“He hugs, pokes, jabs and tickles. If he sees a man with a bald pate, he rubs it,” wrote staff writer Leslie Linthicum.

The piece quoted Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D) as saying that his touching and poking is “irritating and annoying,” and that she tries to avoid the physical contact by “trying not to stand or sit next to him.”

“It’s my way of connecting to people,” the governor told the newspaper when asked about his tendency to touch people. “I guess that’s what I get for being friendly,” he added.

But Richardson’s physicality is part of a potentially larger problem. Even admirers acknowledge that he can sometimes be “sophomoric” and overly informal.

But Richardson’s informality also reflects his “regular guy” persona that many voters and reporters will likely find so appealing. (Some state lawmakers, no doubt, would add that the nice-guy governor can be an overpowering bully when he wants to get his way.)

The New Mexico governor is a man of considerable talent. Measured by commitments, money and organization in the early states, Richardson starts behind many of the other contenders for the Democratic nomination. But his résumé and charisma have the potential to carry him a long way in the race. He’s worth keeping an eye on.