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Gov. Wows 'Em in D.C., but Can He Win Over DNC?

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
    WASHINGTON— Alison McCauley walked into the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting Saturday morning merely curious about New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's presidential bid.
    One speech and several standing ovations later, the New York political activist said she walked away dazzled.
    "I didn't know much about him, but that was an incredible speech— it was incredible," said McCauley, who worked on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's campaign last fall. "It was great to listen to. He was entertaining, he was humble and intelligent, and he had great things to say. I was very, very impressed."
    McCauley was one of dozens who thronged around Richardson seeking photos, autographs, hugs and handshakes after his speech here Saturday. It took Richardson and his aides 20 minutes to travel about 150 feet from the Washington Hilton's banquet hall to a bank of elevators across the lobby as they departed.
    By comparison, Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat who spoke immediately before Richardson, and Gen. Wesley Clark, who spoke on Friday, drew only a handful of well-wishers and reporters as they left the hall after their presidential pitches to this top tier of Democratic activists.
    Many party loyalists who attended the DNC meeting Friday and Saturday, while saying they were undecided about whom to support, also said they didn't think Richardson has a realistic chance of winning the nomination.
    Even so, all of those interviewed said he deserves to be considered as a serious candidate.
    Josh Goodman, a Democrat attending American University in Washington, is backing Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Goodman said that Richardson's résumé is as strong as any other candidate's but that Democrats want an electrifying candidate who can win the White House.
    "There is no reason Richardson shouldn't be the nominee and, in any other year, he probably would be," Goodman said. "It's a testament to how strong the contenders are this year that he's way down among our options."
    Scott Talan, who teaches a class on public speaking at George Washington University, said Richardson's speech surpassed his expectations. Talan pointed out that the audience leaped to its feet numerous times during Richardson's talk, which meant he managed to impress a savvy political crowd that might have been ambivalent about the governor before Saturday morning.
    "I was surprised at how serious and how real he was," Talan said. "He didn't lecture, he didn't bore and he had a real command of the issues. When you looked at Richardson during the speech, you could tell that he knew he was getting through to people."
    Richardson— a former congressman, United Nations ambassador and U.S. energy secretary— confirmed his intention to seek the party's nomination last month. The two-term governor is widely viewed as a long-shot candidate, in part because he hails from a small western state.
    But he said Saturday's speech gave him a crucial, early chance to elevate his profile among the grass-roots activists who comprise the DNC. Many are the same delegates who will ultimately decide the party's nomination in August 2008.
    "I just tried to get myself introduced," Richardson said afterward. "I know I'm low in the polls, but I just started. We're getting a lot of volunteers. I'm fine. I'm exactly where I want to be."
    Democratic front-runners Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards spoke Friday and drew perhaps double the audience that Richardson, Biden and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack did on Saturday. DNC Chairman Howard Dean said the speaking order for the winter meeting was chosen by a drawing.
    Richardson drew enthusiastic applause for his calls to exit Iraq, to boost public school teacher pay and to use tax cuts to reward companies that create jobs, not to reward the wealthy.
    "The Congress passed a resolution authorizing war," said Richardson, who supported the initial invasion of Iraq. "They need to pass another that overturns that authorization and bring our troops home by the end of this year."
    Richardson leaned heavily on his own résumé during his speech, and especially touted his experience as a former ambassador and diplomatic troubleshooter. Over the years, the governor has negotiated the release of U.S. hostages and prisoners in North Korea, Iraq and Sudan.
    "I know the usual rap on governors— that we don't know anything about foreign affairs," Richardson quipped. "Well, maybe you can say that about governors from Texas, but not this governor."
    Richardson brought the audience to its feet when he told them New Mexico has a new hate crimes law. He was the first candidate during the conference to mention hate crimes as a key issue.
    "In New Mexico, our fight for equality extends to sexual orientation," Richardson said. "We've extended civil rights protections to include sexual orientation and we're providing state health insurance for domestic partnerships."


E-MAIL writer Michael Coleman