WASHINGTON—Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico insists that he's focused only on helping Democrats win elections this year and won't decide until next year whether to run for president.
But over scrambled eggs and sausage Tuesday morning, he gave reporters a preview of the distinctive campaign he'd run _and how much he'd differ from likely rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
He boasts a decidedly different resume. He's arguably more candid. And he's definitely funnier.
"I haven't made a decision," said Richardson, 58. "I will make a decision early next year."
Later, however, he ticked off the changes in the Democratic presidential primary calendar and how Western states could play a bigger role in picking the 2008 nominee—states that happen to be in his backyard. Was he already mapping his campaign? "I'm just kind of observing how it happens," he said, his smile giving way to a knowing laugh.
Richardson came to Washington to talk about his work as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association and the prospects for this year's 36 gubernatorial elections.
He's on the ballot himself. But he's coasting toward re-election to a second term, confident enough that he can tour the country helping other candidates for governor—and coincidentally earning the gratitude of potentially powerful pols who might be able to help him in 2008.
As governor, he's built a record that could serve as the centerpiece of a presidential campaign aimed at holding blue states and picking up red states. He's cut taxes. He declared an illegal immigration state of emergency. He dramatically increased death benefits for his state's National Guardsmen killed in Iraq, a move being followed by 36 other states.
"Being a governor is the best job I've ever had," he said. "A governor can actually do things. You can build schools. You can create jobs. You can give health care to little kids. We were able in New Mexico to insure every child under 5."
Richardson is keenly aware that the country tends to elect governors, not senators, to the presidency. Four of the last five presidents were governors first. No senator has been elected since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
"When you're in Congress, you don't have to worry about fiscal issues, about management. You're kind of voting, you're floating around," he said.
Richardson wouldn't be the only governor in the Democratic race. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner are eyeing campaigns, as is Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, a former governor.
But Richardson would be the only one who also has foreign policy experience—often a weakness for governors. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1997-98 and keeps his hand in international affairs. This summer, he flew to Sudan to win the release of two journalists who were arrested while reporting in Darfur.
Personally, Richardson is very different from Clinton and other potential rivals.
For one, he's more candid.
As DGA chairman, he laughed that he came to the press breakfast "to give you the most positive spin, in case you haven't figured that out."
Belying that jest, he acknowledged that, if the election were held today, Democrats would pick up governors' offices in states such as Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, but fall short in such states as California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas.
He insisted that Democrats could and would prevail in many of those states—but not all politicians would concede that their party would lose in them if the elections were today.
Finally, Richardson likes to share a laugh.
Take his comments on the growing voting power of Hispanics. "They're everywhere. I was just in Maine. I met the three of them. They came to the airport to see me," said Richardson, whose mother is Mexican.
The candor and laughs could fade if Richardson gets in the race and starts getting the much tougher scrutiny that probably helped turn Clinton defensive. But it's also possible that his warmer personality could help him weather the onslaught better.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)