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Richardson knows governors, not senators, win race

Published April 1, 2007


Boil the presidential election down to Florida. If Republicans lose it, game over; Democrats win the White House.

I defy anyone to name a Democrat better equipped to take Florida than New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Think of it: a tax-cutting, NRA-supported progressive Democrat who can make a strong case in the conservative Panhandle; and the first Latino presidential nominee sure to energize the crucial Hispanic vote in South Florida and Central Florida.

For Central Florida's crucial swing voters disillusioned by what they've seen with Iraq and Katrina, the two-term red- state governor, former U.N. ambassador, and U.S. energy secretary can sell competence. Nobody on either side is as experienced and tested on the key issues of the day - foreign policy, energy independence and economic growth.

If resumes decided elections, Richardson would already be a lock. Unfortunately for Democrats, they don't.

The little-noticed Richardson remains stuck, for now, in the second tier of Democratic contenders - well behind Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. He lacks their name recognition, their fundraising networks and their cautious political polish and discipline.

Richardson, 59, is paunchy, rumpled and sometimes too gregariously impish for his own good.

My first encounter with him came at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he was in the midst of a network TV interview. Spotting me looking impatient while waiting to ask him a few questions near midnight, he caught my eye, beamed and stuck out his pink tongue to taunt me.

A presidential candidate who looks like normal Americans, is substantive, unscripted and spontaneous? It's about time.

"He doesn't have the $3,000 suit or the perfectly coiffed hair, but he's a guy of substance and with a real record," said Miami real estate investor Stephen Bittel, who is raising money for Richardson and finds a lot of people pegging Richardson as their second choice. "He opens his mouth, and you believe and feel he's telling the truth. And you know what, this is a time in our history when we want to be told the truth."

To win the Democratic nomination, Richardson won't have the more than $100-million to spend like the front-runners, or their organizational muscle in early primary and caucus contests. But he's a sleeper candidate with at least a couple of paths to victory.

Like all the underdogs, he can move into the top tier if one or two of the front-runners stumbles badly or drops out.

"Richardson's got experience at every level of government, and a lot of people on the Democratic side are looking for an option that's not really out there yet," said Dan Reynolds, president of the Broward County AFL-CIO, who stressed he was speaking only for himself. "A number of people are just afraid of Hillary, though I have tremendous respect for her, they think Obama's just not quite ready, and John Edwards for some reason does not seem to be catching fire."

If the Democratic field remains intact come January 2008, for Richardson it's all about Iowa and Nevada.

The tentative schedule for the opening Democratic contests puts the crucial Iowa caucuses on Jan. 14, followed by Nevada caucuses Jan. 19, the New Hampshire primary Jan. 22, and on Jan. 29 South Carolina's and possibly Florida's primaries.

Nobody expects Richardson to win Iowa, where he currently has virtually no campaign organization. But he has a real shot at winning Nevada, with its large number of Hispanics and Western sensibilities.

Substance and one-on-one politicking can still make a big difference in Iowa and New Hampshire, and that's Richardson's strength. A top-three Iowa finish would surprise people and give him momentum heading into Nevada.

"He's got to have enough out of Iowa for people in Nevada not to say 'What for? What's the point?' " said former Kerry-Edwards pollster Mark Mellman, who is not working with any of the presidential candidates this year.

A strong showing in Iowa, followed by a Nevada win would make Richardson a giant killer with a burst of momentum to push him through the flurry of primaries that follow soon after.

"Whoever comes out of these early states with momentum will be the nominee," said Richardson campaign manager David Contarino.

The general election case is easy to make for the former 15-year congressman who grew up in Mexico and New England.

After George Bush won New Mexico in 2004, Richardson two years later won re-election with 69 percent of the vote, including 40 percent of Republicans. This son of an American father and Mexican mother is impossible to pigeonhole.

He supports gun rights and providing government employees, gay and straight, with domestic partner benefits. As governor he cut taxes, dolled out tax credits and grew New Mexico's surplus, while expanding children's health care, building a light rail line and aggressively implementing anti-global warming programs.

He was one of the first candidates to call for a timetable to get out of Iraq, and he's the only one who's actually sat down and negotiated with bad guys like Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong Il. In a dangerous and complicated world, voters of all stripes will be reassured by a candidate who doesn't need to study talking points when asked about Sudan or Syria.

No, you haven't heard much about Bill Richardson yet, but remember that governors, not senators, win the presidency. We're still 10 months away from voting, and Richardson has the profile and record to break out.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or

[Last modified May 22, 2007, 12:24:26]

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