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Iowans Evaluate Richardson

By Jeff Jones
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Politics Writer
    PERRY, Iowa— Grace Cozad is a political jewel sure to make Bill Richardson's eyes shine: She's an undecided Democrat having doubts about some of her party's presidential front-runners.
    Trouble is, the hardware-store worker in this small town about 40 minutes northwest of Des Moines doesn't yet know much about the Democratic New Mexico governor— whom she calls "Richards." And she said plenty of political suitors are trying to woo her as the clock rolls like an icy Iowa wind toward Thursday's first-in-the-nation caucuses.
    "I haven't heard a whole lot about Richards," Cozad said Monday outside a friendly hardware store that stocks plenty of shotgun shells for pheasant season but is out of rock salt and ice picks to battle the frigid weather.
    "I really hate this time of the year, because they bombard you with a lot of stuff," she said during a brief interview in 18-degree weather at midday Monday. "I've probably got about 20 (calls). Even on my cell phone."
    With the potentially make-or-break caucus night approaching on Thursday, Richardson and most of the rest of the 2008 presidential pack are hustling down back roads and talking themselves hoarse in hopes of sewing up some of the many Iowa caucus votes still up for grabs.
    A Journal tour of several central Iowa towns where Richardson campaigned New Year's Eve found that while many potential caucusgoers know plenty about the hard-campaigning governor and his long-shot bid, others have yet to become Friends of Bill.
    Richardson, meanwhile, is doing everything he can to make sure his message gets out. He packed crowds into several Monday events, including a noontime stop at the Perry public library that drew 100-plus backers and a morning stop in Ames that his campaign said attracted a crowd several times larger.
    "The thing I like about you Iowans, you like to make up your mind in the last five days," Richardson said at the library in Perry.
    Richardson has been running fourth in the Democratic presidential pack in Iowa, trailing the tightly knotted front-runners John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
    New polling by the Des Moines Register was to be released Monday night. Richardson has said he needs to best one of the three front-runners on Thursday night.
    One of Richardson's stops on Sunday was in Des Moines' Drake University neighborhood and, on Monday, at the Drake Diner on 25th Street, Bill Banks of Des Moines had high praise for the New Mexico governor.
    "Bill Richardson is, by far, the best of the bunch," Banks said. "... Your guy is far superior, if they can accomplish what they say they can do."
    Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a prominent Hispanic who made national news earlier this year by endorsing Clinton, had just left the diner with a top Clinton staffer. Banks added he has doubts about whether Richardson can collect enough caucus votes to succeed in Iowa.
    "I wish he'd make it, but I don't think he can muster the numbers," Banks said.
    "I'm gonna try for the guy," he said. "If he doesn't make it ... he'd be prime for a vice president's job."
    Richardson made a stop Monday up the road in Perry and resident Charlie Taylor was thinking like Banks.
    "Richardson is my first choice," Taylor said on his way out of a hardware store in Perry. "He's for the working man. But I don't know if he's got the pull to get it done."
    Richardson later headed to Winterset, another small town about 50 minutes due south of Perry in Madison County, home of the famous covered bridges. Although it hadn't snowed in a few days, the bitter winds had piled drifts along the side of the road, and snowy ghosts swirled low across the blacktop.
    Dave Kirkland of Winterset, who delivers hog feed for BB & P Feed and Grain, was out on those roads, in his blue Kenworth tractor-trailer rig.
    Kirkland is an independent voter and said that although he probably won't participate in a caucus, he favors Obama and Clinton on the Democratic ticket— candidates who happen to have plenty of advertising cash to toss around.
    "I haven't read much about him," he said of Richardson. "I'm sitting in this truck all day. Whatever's on the radio, that's what I hear."
    Richardson's stop in Winterset came at the Madison County Historical Museum, where 80-plus people had gathered.
    Jim Heithoff, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in the museum crowd, said he gets "frustrated" at the amount of money some candidates are spending. Talking to a reporter before Richardson's speech, he said he hadn't yet locked in on a candidate but he liked Richardson and Obama.
    "I'm one of the 'undecideds' '' Heithoff said. "I think I'm the one they're going for right now."
    A half-hour's drive away in Indianola, where Richardson would make a campaign appearance at a winery, John Vanderlinden was finishing up some paperwork inside his automotive shop.
    Vanderlinden, who didn't attend the winery event, said Richardson has become a well-known figure in Iowa and he made a prediction that could bode well for lower-tier candidates like the New Mexico governor.
    "Iowans are going to surprise you on Thursday night," Vanderlinden said.
    "The glitz, the glamour, all that's just BS," he said. "It's going to surprise you ... how the candidates really stack up."