BOW, N.H. — Bill Richardson, the Democratic presidential contender with the
heavyweight resume — former congressman, U.N. ambassador, energy secretary and now governor of New Mexico — is wrapping up his six-point plan for a Richardson presidency when he suggests that his audience is skeptical of his chance to win.
Despite his credentials — negotiating with despots, balancing a state budget,
pursuing global diplomacy, pushing green technology as energy secretary — Richardson has been overshadowed in early debates and polls by rivals with more polish, better name recognition and vastly more money.
"I know you're saying, 'Governor Richardson, we've met him, good guy, good-looking guy, too, good credentials,' '' Richardson says to a small but receptive crowd at a backyard house party. "But then you're saying, 'Can he win?' I know you're thinking it. You read the polls."
Such is the plight of the underdog. Even as he seeks to position himself as the
candidate with the most experience, Richardson has to persuade skeptics to take his candidacy seriously.
"This should be a race about who's got the best plan for this country, who's got the credentials to lead this country," Richardson says. Several in the audience nod.
''Not who's the biggest rock star or who has the most money or the most political
Lacking big bucks, Richardson politicks voter by voter. The gregarious governor actually holds the Guinness world record for handshaking. He's counting on strong showings, though not necessarily the top spot, in early voting states to catapult him into the top tier.
Living on a diet of liquid shakes, Richardson travels tirelessly, his exhausted staffers note. Relaxed and informal, he draws energy from talking to voters,
frequently grabbing a hand, then grasping the entire arm. He's even got rules for
shaking hands: "It can't just be a fish handshake, you've got to get the whole hand,"
he tells a radio interviewer in Nashua.
Some voters get bear hugs, others have their hair ruffled.
"That's me," Richardson said in an interview. "I'm a physical campaigner."
As he lumbered along the New Hampshire parade route during the Fourth of July holiday week, one woman pressed him on global warming. Richardson, who tells his audiences he'd expect Americans to "sacrifice'' to ensure energy independence, stopped to share his ideas. Behind him, the parade backed up.
"They almost threw me out," Richardson later joked.
Many Democrats are already familiar with his record, thanks to his early television commercials, which poke fun at his second-tier status despite his record. Yet some question whether the man who writes in his autobiography that he's been described as an ''unmade bed'' has presidential polish.
"I like Bill Richardson, I really do, he's got one hell of a resume," military
retiree Ira Hartwell, 76, says in Marlow. "But I'm leaning toward (Barack) Obama. He's got something we haven't seen before."
On the trail, Richardson presents a detailed recitation of what'd he do as president, including pulling all U.S. forces out in Iraq within six months of taking office — before taking question after question. He offers his thoughts on energy conservation, the importance of arts in schools and immigration — not shying away from his support for earned legalization.
"I'm at 10 percent (in the polls), I gotta move up here," the self-deprecating
Richardson quips at the house party. He agrees to take one more question as his handlers nudge him to wrap it up, glancing at their watches and anxious about arriving late to the next event. He fields nearly a half-dozen more.
The Richardson campaign has a bit of a ragtag feel. His staffers looked enviously at the sea of bright green Barack Obama T-shirts that the Illinois senator's campaign aides wore in two Fourth of July parades.
But Richardson's TV ads — a bored headhunter chewing on a sandwich as he ticks off Richardson's accomplishments — have gained him notice.
"It's the first ad I've ever watched that I wanted to see to the end without
flipping the channel," said Debby deMoulpied, an uncommitted Democrat who hosted
Richardson at her Bow home. "It says a lot about how we look at candidates. He hasn't gotten the attention yet, but that resume, I think there's a big wow factor."
Voters say he comes off as a regular guy.
Clad in a Red Sox baseball jacket and jeans, he enthusiastically clanged a wooden spoon and pot together — the first presidential candidate to participate in tiny Greenville's Pots and Pans Parade — which kicked off at midnight.
"It's a difficult event to work because it's in the dark," notes former state Rep.
Richard Eaton, a one-time Republican who signed up with Richardson two years ago,
impressed with his credentials and fed up with what he says is President Bush's lack of
"Bill knows how to play the international scene," Eaton said. "He's going to
repair our relationship with the rest of the world."
Though Richardson relishes the personal touch, he's surprisingly stingy with personal details on the trail. He mentions briefly — and only in the context of explaining his love for Mickey Mantle — that he grew up in Mexico City. His father was an Anglo banker, his mother is Mexican. In an interview, he said he's not interested in campaigning as the first Hispanic candidate.
"I'm trying to convey that I'm a mainstream American governor who's very proud to be Hispanic," Richardson said. "I don't try to be a wedge candidate. I've never wanted to be categorized as a professional Hispanic. I want to compete with everybody.
"I'm asking voters to base their choice on competence, on record, on vision for the country," he said.
With every close, Richardson acknowledges skepticism about his winning. His poll numbers are up in New Hampshire and Iowa, but he jokes that he started out "below the margin of error."
He gets serious almost only when he closes, telling voters that Americans elect
governors as president, not senators. And he suggests that New Hampshire voters have a special affection for the un-anointed.
"You're first, you have a special responsibility," Richardson says to about 100
Democrats in Stoddard who braved a miles-long dirt road to get a look at him. "You've
got to cut through all this B.S., all this money and all this fanfare to look at the
candidates in the eye and say, 'Are you genuine? Can you lead this country?' ''
The personal touch gets Richardson notice in a state that relishes poking and
prodding presidential candidates.
In Greenville, awaiting the start of the parade, Shaugn Gillespie, an uncommitted
independent worried about a nephew about to embark on a fourth tour of duty in Iraq,
said he had dismissed Richardson as "one of the crowd." Then the candidate approached him for a handshake and stuck around to answer his questions about his position on Iraq, health care for veterans and immigration.
"He's got my attention," Gillespie said. "He shook my hand and looked me right
in the eye. He wasn't looking over my shoulder for someone else to talk to. I'm not sure
we agree on everything, but I don't have to if I trust the person, and this guy — I like
Richardson is running against the clock. At a parade in Amherst, he may have set yet another record for a vote-seeking politician: a 44-second speech.
"I got to go shake more hands," Richardson told the crowd as he walked off the
reviewing stand, plunging into the crowd with an extended hand.
"Hey, I'm Bill Richardson and I'm running for president," he said.