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High Ambition: Richardson Eyes the White House - Part 5

By Thomas J. Cole And Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writers; Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal

    Editor's Note: This is the final installment of a series profiling Gov. Bill Richardson that was researched and written by Journal reporters and appeared over five weeks in the Sunday Journal.

    SANTA FE— A few days after the November election in 2004, Gov. Bill Richardson and top aide Dave Contarino sat in Richardson's fourth-floor office at the Capitol and chewed over the results.
    The governor and Contarino had worked hard for Sen. John Kerry, hoping to deliver New Mexico's five electoral votes to the Massachusetts Democrat and help deny President Bush a second term.
    In the end, Kerry lost New Mexico and the election. That meant four more years of Bush but an opportunity for another Democrat to be the party's nominee for the White House in 2008.
    "Maybe next time it's going to be us," Richardson said.
    As he and Contarino prepared over the next two years for a possible Richardson run for the presidency, their mantra became "Do well by doing good."
    Do good as governor by being socially progressive but cutting taxes and being pro-business; do well with voters as a new-type Democrat.
    Do good by raising millions of dollars to help other Democratic governors get elected; do well by making influential friends around the country.
    Do good by going to North Korea for talks on its nuclear weapons program and to Sudan to free a journalist and to try to bring peace to the Darfur region; do well by burnishing Richardson's foreign-policy credentials.
    In the two years after that chat with Contarino, Richardson took other steps toward a possible run for the White House. He visited early Democratic presidential primary and caucus states, hired national political consultants, published a book on his life, even went on a diet.
    On Jan. 21, Richardson made it official— sort of. He announced he was forming a federal committee to explore a campaign for the presidency, saying he intends to be a candidate but isn't yet one officially.
    Such a committee is a common first step for a presidential contender, providing an opportunity to test the waters but allowing for a graceful exit if a candidacy fails to gain traction.
    An exit would position him to run as the Democratic vice presidential candidate or to serve as secretary of state should the party's nominee win the presidency.
    Richardson— once tagged as a carpetbagger for his move to the state in search of elective office— is the first New Mexican to officially consider a run for the White House. For certain, he faces hurdles.
    Some of the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008— most notably Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the former first lady— is better-known, better-organized and better-financed.
    Richardson has acknowledged he's an underdog.
    "There are a lot of other big names in this race. But I will outwork them," the governor has said.
    What makes Richardson supporters and others think he's a viable candidate? The short answer is that he can appeal to many groups.
    He neutralizes Republicans to some degree on key issues like tax cuts and gun control, while staying true to basic Democratic values like abortion rights, pro-labor and expanded health care coverage.
    "While the liberal wing of the Democratic Party should be comfortable with him, he also has very good relations with business and doesn't strike anybody as being a wacko liberal," says John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
    "By Democratic standards, he's pretty moderate," Pitney adds. "He's able to win a purple state. A purple state is between red and blue."
    He has other pluses in a run for the presidency:
  • An impressive resume that includes experience in domestic and foreign affairs as a congressman, U.N. ambassador, Clinton Cabinet member and two-term governor.
  • A record of success as governor, including tax cuts, balanced budgets and job growth.
  • A practical approach to governing, in which the focus is more on solutions to problems than ideology.
  • An affable personality that is invaluable in courting voters and the news media.
  • Fundraising skills and a Rolodex fat with friends and other contacts across the country.
        Of course, no candidate comes without minuses. Richardson's include:
  • Resume inflation, including claiming that he was drafted to play professional baseball. He later acknowledged that he wasn't drafted.
  • A well-rooted and long-established reputation as being not serious— a "frat boy" image, as one network TV host recently called it.
  • An appearance that contributors to his gubernatorial campaigns have been rewarded with government contracts and other favors.
  • His role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and security problems at the Department of Energy while he was secretary of that agency.
        Richardson has lost only one election, and that was his first, more than a generation ago. He has achieved much since then through confidence, drive, energy, smarts and hard work.
        After Richardson left Washington at the end of the Clinton administration, he said he'd had enough of the company town.
        "I've enjoyed it," Richardson said. "I'm not complaining, but I've done it."
        Now he wants to head back to the city where he began his political life as an intern on Capitol Hill more than three decades ago.
    'The Champ'
        On a Wednesday evening in December, several hundred representatives of corporations and labor, governors and others gathered for drinks and heavy hors d'oeuvres beneath twinkling chandeliers at a Washington, D.C., hotel.
        The Democratic Governors Association billed the occasion as a holiday reception, but it was more akin to a victory celebration. And the man of the hour was Bill Richardson, winding up two terms as chairman of the DGA.
        Under his leadership, the DGA had helped engineer a Democratic takeover of a majority of governor's mansions across the country.
        Richardson's role was huge.
        He was credited with raising more money for the DGA than any other Democratic governor. He doled out DGA funds and some of his own campaign money to gubernatorial hopefuls. He traveled to other states to campaign for candidates and help raise even more money.
        To show the DGA's appreciation, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III hushed the crowd at the holiday reception and gave Richardson a red boxing glove autographed by Muhammad Ali.
        "Bill has been our champ," Manchin told the partygoers. "One champ to another."
        When Richardson and Contarino began preparing for a possible run for the White House, they recognized the DGA as a vehicle for making political connections in other states, amassing political IOUs from those Richardson helped and raising his national profile.
        "There is tremendous good will" toward Richardson among Democratic governors, Manchin said in an interview.
        "Bill took us to a whole new level ... brought it all together," Manchin said. "I think the people of West Virginia need to be introduced to Bill Richardson."
        One of the most critical steps for a presidential candidate is setting up campaign organizations in multiple states for party primaries and caucuses.
        The DGA offered an opportunity to connect with governors, their organizations and campaign contributors.
        "The goal was you'll do well by doing good, and doing good was to get Democrats elected and doing well was making a lot of friends," says Contarino, now Richardson's campaign manager.
        He says that to be a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Richardson will need to soon demonstrate support in other states among public officials, constituency group leaders and other political movers and shakers.
    Money talks, loudly
        In addition to building a campaign organization, Richardson's early to-do list as he explores a run for president includes raising money— lots of it.
        Richardson is barred by federal law from transferring money from his gubernatorial campaign account to the exploratory committee.
        That is a handicap that doesn't hamper a federal officeholder like Hillary Rodham Clinton, who can transfer millions from her Senate campaign bank account to a presidential campaign.
        Steve Grossman, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says raising money will be Richardson's biggest challenge.
        "The table stakes may be as much as $50 million to be considered seriously and get to the next tier," Grossman says.
        Some believe Richardson may be up to the task.
        "One of Bill's great assets is his ability to raise money," says Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who served as finance chairman for the Democratic Governors Association under Richardson.
        Pitney, of Claremont McKenna College, says Richardson's Hispanic ethnicity could help him in fundraising.
        "Notwithstanding stereotypes, there are a heck of a lot of successful Latinos out there, and he might be able to raise a lot of money from them," he says.
        Richardson's fundraising also could benefit from his good relations with business, Pitney adds.
        Richardson was credited with raising $4 million of the $16 million in contributions to the DGA last year.
        He took in more than $21 million for his 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial campaigns— a small amount by big-state standards but record-shattering in New Mexico.
        Richardson also collected more than $2.4 million for Moving America Forward, a political committee he formed to increase Hispanic and Native American participation in the 2004 election.
        Contarino says the governor has demonstrated an overall ability to raise money but not the specific skill of piling up the so-called hard money that presidential candidates are limited to collecting.
        "Hard money" is a term for contributions regulated by federal election law.
        The amount of money an individual can contribute to a federal candidate is limited to $2,300 per primary or general election, or a total of $4,600 in an election year.
        The money Richardson has raised in recent years hasn't been regulated by federal election law and has been collected in chunks as large as tens of thousands of dollars.
        With a federal committee to explore a presidential run, he will have to have many more donors contributing smaller amounts.
        Richardson hired national fundraisers for his 2006 re-election campaign in anticipation of their going to work for his presidential effort.
        National fundraisers know the so-called bundlers— those people around the country who collect donations from business associates, friends or others.
        "They know how to raise money in smaller chunks," Contarino says. "It's part of what we've done, but it's going to be different, because you can't walk into a room and have people hand you $5,000 checks or $10,000."
        The national fundraisers helped Richardson collect money from donors in at least 49 states during his re-election campaign last year.
        Richardson's gubernatorial campaign in the spring of 2006 also hired the Washington, D.C., media consulting firm of Murphy Putnam in anticipation that it would later help on a presidential campaign.
        Murphy Putnam worked on the 2004 presidential bid of former Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
        During his term as governor, there have been media reports that Richardson's large campaign contributors have gotten government contracts or other favors.
        Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., says Richardson invites greater scrutiny by considering a run for president.
        Domenici says he is uncertain how the governor would fare if the national media shone a spotlight on his major campaign contributors and how they have benefited from his administration.
        "It's the most risky thing he has going for him," the senator says.
        A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee has called the Richardson administration "one of the most corrupt" in the nation.
        Richardson has repeatedly denied any link between campaign contributions and the actions of his administration, saying his financial supporters "get good will" and access but no special treatment.
        "It's an appearance thing," Contarino says. "Appearance is often not reality."
        He adds, "We weren't trying to hide anything. If there was some kind of pay-to-play thing, then you'd think there would be an effort to hide it."
        Contarino says Richardson's runaway re-election in November demonstrated that voters don't believe something is amiss.
        "There's a sense that, OK, this happens, gee, what a surprise, people who do business with the state give a lot of money to politicians," he says.
        Contarino adds that Richardson moved to force state Treasurer Robert Vigil from office after his indictment in a corruption scandal.
        He also notes that after Richardson friend and appointee Guy Riordan was implicated in the Treasuer's Office scandal, the governor cut ties with Riordan and his campaign donated more than $44,000 to charity. That amount represented Riordan's contributions to the campaign.
        Riordan, a broker, hasn't been charged with a crime and has denied wrongdoing.
        In response to the scandal in the Treasurer's Office, Richardson has proposed creation of a state ethics commission, a limit on the dollar amount of campaign contributions and a ban on public officials accepting gifts valued at $250 or more.
    Frat boy image
        Janet Murguía got to know Richardson when he was in the House and she was a congressional staff worker.
        Richardson— well-known for connecting with people through humor and sometimes a poke or jab— would kid around with Murguía by putting her in a headlock, she says.
        One day, Murguía says, her twin sister was visiting the Hill and Richardson mistook her for Murguía and put her in a headlock. The sister was a federal judge.
        "I'm not sure he could continue to put people in headlocks" and run for president, Janet Murguía says.
        She is now president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, and remains a Richardson fan. But she is among those concerned about how Richardson's personality will play on a national stage.
        "It can be endearing to some but maybe not to everyone," Murguía says. "He may very well need to change his behavior."
        Richardson's relaxed personality has served him well in politics. The question is whether that personality— sometimes viewed as not serious— will damage his chances of being taken seriously as a possible resident of the White House.
        Shea Andersen, a former reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune, wrote for salon.com in August 2005 that Richardson playfully directed an obscene gesture his way during news conferences.
        "It was like taking notes from a frat boy," Andersen wrote.
        Then there was the incident reported in the Journal involving Richardson's lieutenant governor, Diane Denish.
        Photos taken at a groundbreaking ceremony with Richardson in 2005 showed the governor's hand near Denish's backside.
        Asked about the photos, Denish said Richardson over the years had poked her, pinched her neck and touched "my hip, my thigh, sort of the side of my leg."
        "Dealing with physical teasing, especially in public settings, is one of the challenges of this governor," Denish said. "He has a lot of good qualities, and this is one of the challenges."
        She said he had never touched her in an improper way but that such physical contact in a public setting was inappropriate because it could be misconstrued.
        Richardson called it innocent teasing. "I have a short attention span. I get bored easily," he said.
        Last March, New York Times reporter Matt Bai wrote that Richardson's "aggressively extroverted personality makes party insiders uncomfortable."
        And Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza wrote in November that he continued "to hear concerns from Democrats that he (Richardson) is simply not disciplined enough to run a campaign under the national spotlight."
        The national media also have described Richardson as appearing immature and not serious at times.
        Herbert Asher, a professor emeritus in political science at Ohio State University, says Richardson, as a relative unknown to voters outside New Mexico, still has a chance to define himself to the broader public.
        "The challenge for him will be, how does he come across as a person with a sense of humor, a sense of empathy, a sense of understanding that people can relate to at the same time he also comes across as somebody who's serious about the issues?" Asher says.
        Pitney, of Claremont McKenna, agrees that Richardson has an opportunity to define himself to voters nationwide.
        "In that sense, the lack of attention (from Democratic opponents and Republicans) is an asset, because on a national scale his image remains largely unformed," he says. "He can do so some defensive repairs while in the shade."
    A regular Joe
        Rebecca Cooper, a former aide to Richardson at the United Nations, wasn't surprised by the story of the governor being hands-on with Denish.
        "What's interesting about Bill is it's not sexist so much," Cooper says. "He just kind of does that to everyone. Some people have said, is it because he's a womanizer, is that why he's like that?
        "And really as far as I can see, Bill Richardson is kind of that way with everybody of all sexes."
        Richardson is also a master at so-called retail politicking— greeting voters at diners, factories and elsewhere— and that is a big part of running in the early presidential primaries and caucuses.
        Peter Bourne, a former Carter administration official and consultant who worked with Richardson on some of his foreign travels in the mid-1990s, says his personality is his biggest asset.
        "He is totally charming. If he wants to run for mayor of Baghdad, he would win," he says.
        "He says what he thinks, and he doesn't pretty it up too much, and I think that is really impressive to people," says David Goldwyn, who was an aide to Richardson at the United Nations and the Department of Energy.
        "He has an ability to connect with people— fancy people and regular people. And that makes him a very effective communicator," Goldwyn says.
        Asher, of Ohio State, says one of Richardson's advantages is that he is well-known to the national news media and comfortable dealing with journalists.
        "He's maybe a mystery to the American public, but they (journalists) know him, and they know that actually he's an interesting mix of experience and characteristics," Asher says. "He enjoys among the journalist elite some credibility."
        Richardson clearly will be packaged as a regular Joe on the campaign trail.
        "One of Bill Richardson's great strengths, for want of a better term, is authenticity," Contarino says. "I mean, he's a real guy.
        "He's not a guy who needs to look at a briefing sheet or a set of talking points before he answers the question. ... I think it's what people like, and I think it's want people want."
        Contarino says Richardson "has a certain style that some might call casual and others might find a little too casual. But it's one that is authentic."
        He adds:
        "He is just a ball of energy all the time. So some of that comes out physically, touch you on the back, jabbing you, pretending to write (with) a pen on your shirt, whatever it is. But most of that energy is put into getting things done. Look at the guy's record."
        In his appearance on ABC's "This Week" on Jan. 21, Richardson was asked whether Democrats should be concerned about his "frat boy" image.
        "Well, they shouldn't be," Richardson said. "I'm an open person. I love to campaign. ... I love people. I love parades. I'm friendly."
    Ready for scrutiny
        Contarino says he thinks Richardson's hands-on personality is the cause of rumors of inappropriateness with women.
        A report on The Wall Street Journal's Web site in 2004 said he was scratched as a candidate for vice president because of indiscretions with women.
        Wonkette, a political gossip site, said last month that Richardson's negatives included "unspecified bimboitis."
        "These rumors are a product of his earthiness and his behavior," Contarino responds.
        "Let's face it. The button-down guys haven't done as well politically in recent years. People respect real guys, real women, real individuals."
        Contarino says Richardson, who has been married for more than 34 years, has told him there is nothing to the rumors of indiscretions.
        Richardson was prepped to expect questions about his behavior after his announcement that he was exploring a possible run for the president.
        At a news conference Jan. 22, he said:
        "I've been in public life for over 20 years. I've been confirmed by the U.S. Senate twice. I've been investigated for secretary of energy, U.N. ambassador. I was vetted for vice president and found solid (in 2004). ... I realize a job like this will take a lot of scrutiny."
        The Richardson camp has been prepared to trot out the man who headed Kerry's vice presidential search in 2004.
        Jim Johnson has previously said that nothing in Richardson's background check ruled him out of being on the ticket. Kerry chose Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina for the position.
        Sen. Domenici is among those who believes Richardson shouldn't try to change his personality and style as he considers a run for the presidency.
        "He's not a newborn. It's a lot easier to mold a newborn. He is what he is," Domenici says.
        Richardson has indicated that he isn't interested much in change.
        "My approach is going to be: Here I am; this is me. What you see is what you get," he said in 2005.
        But since the publicity over the incident involving Lt. Gov. Denish, Richardson's public behavior has been noticeably restrained. Still, a spokesman says, "He's still the hard-charging, gregarious, playful governor."
    Ever the diplomat
        Much has been made over Richardson's credentials to be president.
        "As far as experience goes, he's the best-qualified candidate. He has the whole package," says Pitney, of Claremont McKenna.
        Richardson's resume: 14 years in Congress, ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of the Department of Energy under President Clinton, and governor for more than four years.
        "I know the usual rap on governors— that we don't know anything about foreign affairs," Richardson told the Democratic National Committee on Feb. 3. "Well, maybe you can say that about governors from Texas, but not this governor."
        With the Cold War over, the last two presidents— Bill Clinton and George W. Bush— were elected without previous working experience in foreign affairs.
        The question is whether voters will change that pattern in the face of the terrorism threat, the Iraq war and the spread of nuclear weapons around the globe.
        "It's going to be challenging for anybody who cannot rise to a level of credibility on the national security side of the equation to be seriously considered in a post-9/11 world," says Grossman, a former Democratic National Committee chairman.
        Richardson obtained a master's degree in international affairs at Tufts University and later worked as a foreign-policy aide at the State Department and on Capitol Hill in the 1970s.
        As a member of Congress in the '80s and '90s, he traveled overseas often as a member of the intelligence committee and as an international troubleshooter, sometimes at the behest of the Clinton administration.
        Richardson negotiated with North Korea for the release of two U.S. airmen in 1994.
        Calling himself the "undersecretary for thugs," he also traveled in the '90s to Sudan, Iraq and Cuba to help win freedom for captives, meeting with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro.
        Since becoming governor in 2003, Richardson has met twice in Santa Fe with North Korean diplomats. He also has flown to the Asian country for more talks on its nuclear weapons program.
        Richardson went to Sudan in September to negotiate the release of Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter.
        He traveled again to Sudan in January to try to persuade its leader to accept U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur. Just two weeks ago, he popped up in New York to meet with the new secretary-general of the United Nations.
        "Unfortunately, the world around us is on the verge of spiraling out of control," Richardson said in 2006. "What the Bush administration has failed to understand is that while diplomacy without power is weak, power without diplomacy is blind."
        Last year, Richardson said the Bush administration's refusal to talk with North Korea directly about its nuclear weapons program had produced nothing but failure.
        White House spokesman Tony Snow responded by saying that Richardson as U.N. ambassador went to North Korea with flowers, chocolates, a basketball signed by Michael Jordan and other inducements to try to get the renegade regime not to develop nuclear weapons.
        "We've learned from that mistake," Snow said.
        Richardson said the administration was ungrateful for his efforts in meeting with North Korean representatives and that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright actually took the basketball on a trip during the Clinton administration.
    The Lewinsky factor
        Asher, of Ohio State, says Richardson's link to Lewinsky and his troubles at the Energy Department could become issues in the presidential campaign.
        "If it turns out he is gaining some traction and he's a threat to some of his fellow Democrats, that certainly can arise," Asher says.
        While ambassador to the United Nations and at the request of the White House, he interviewed and later offered a job to Lewinsky, whose sexual relationship with Clinton led to Clinton's impeachment.
        Richardson has described the job interview as a routine favor for a friend in the White House and has said the job offer was not influenced by anyone in the administration. Lewinsky declined the job.
        Richardson stood by Clinton during the scandal, saying in September 1998 that he shouldn't resign.
        "We can't be obsessed with this," he said. "What we need as a country is to move on beyond this and deal with the issues affecting the country."
        Richardson came under intense fire while at the Department of Energy for security breaches at Los Alamos National Laboratory in his home state.
        When he became secretary, he inherited the scandal over allegations that nuclear secrets had been leaked to China, including the case of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee.
        The case against Lee collapsed after he was held in solitary confinement for 278 days, and a federal judge scolded Richardson as one of the decision-makers who had "embarrassed our entire nation."
        Richardson assured Congress in 1999 that the nation's secrets were safe, and then computer hard drives with sensitive information disappeared from a vault at Los Alamos.
        Republicans excoriated Richardson. But the attack at a Senate hearing was bipartisan, with West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd saying Richardson had "shown an extreme contempt of this Congress."
        Pitney says there is "probably nothing fatal" in Richardson's past at the United Nations and the Energy Department but "enough to give opposition researchers something to work with."
        "When you've been a Cabinet official, there's a pretty extensive paper trail," Pitney says. "You're not going to escape controversy on that regard."
        After Democrats lost the White House in 2000, Richardson went to work for an international consulting firm in Washington, D.C., joined corporate boards, taught and made speeches.
        He was elected governor in 2002 and re-elected with a record 69 percent of the vote in 2006.
        Bending the truth?
        One danger Richardson faces in emphasizing his resume is the added scrutiny that goes along with it.
        Democrats Kerry and Al Gore, Clinton's vice president, lost the 2000 and 2004 elections partly because of a public perception that they had trouble with the truth.
        Twice during Richardson's 27-year public life, he has had to make corrections to his resume.
        Richardson was a star baseball pitcher, first at Middlesex prep school and later at Tufts University.
        Over the ensuing years, Richardson claimed that he was drafted to play major league ball but that his father wanted him to continue his education. He later blew out his arm in college.
        The year he was drafted was variously listed as 1966, 1967 or 1968. The drafting team was sometimes named as Kansas City or Los Angeles.
        The reference to Richardson's one-time prospects as a Major League Baseball player became a staple of the profiles written about him and was included in The Almanac of American Politics.
        But when presented with evidence by the Journal, Richardson acknowledged in 2005 that he hadn't been drafted by a Major League Baseball team.
        Richardson said he believed that he had been, based on conversations with scouts and other sources.
        After researching the matter, he said, "I came to the conclusion I was not drafted."
        The state Republican Party spoofed Richardson with baseball cards saying, "Never Drafted, Never Played."
        Asher, of Ohio State, says Richardson would be damaged as a presidential candidate if successfully labeled by others as untruthful based on the issue.
        "There is a danger there that these kinds of things that are so easy to portray get so much more attention than something that might be more policy-related," he says.
        Contarino says that Richardson made a mistake, and that a mistake was admitted.
        He added: "There's nobody out there disputing that this guy wasn't draft material, that he wouldn't have been drafted in a heartbeat if he'd agreed to sign a contract."
        Contarino says a person can't be in public life as long as Richardson has without making mistakes.
        "People will give someone who is a real person, who has an incredible list of accomplishments, a break if he makes a mistake, because everybody makes mistakes, as long as it's an honest mistake, as long as it's acknowledged," he says.
        Richardson's first trouble with his resume came much earlier in his public life.
        In response to a news media inquiry, Richardson acknowledged in 1982 that a biography issued by his campaign incorrectly said Richardson had served as the top foreign affairs aide to Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn.
        Richardson wasn't Humphrey's top aide but was on the staff of the senator's foreign assistance subcommittee.
        Also in 1982, Richardson acknowledged that the money he lent his unsuccessful congressional campaign two years earlier came from sales of stocks and bonds and interests in two partnerships.
        He had previously said he remortgaged his new home in Santa Fe to come up with the money.
        Bourne, the consultant who worked with Richardson on some of his foreign travels in the mid-1990s, says Richardson has a tendency to bend, but not break, facts to show himself in the best possible light.
        "From that standpoint, he's not that far outside the norm" for politicians, Bourne says. "But these are vulnerabilities."
        Bourne, who traveled to Iraq in 1995 with Richardson to meet with Saddam Hussein, has a different version of Richardson's often-told story that he insulted Saddam by showing him the sole of a shoe during negotiations for the release of two U.S. workers.
        Bourne, who was in the room, says Richardson actually insulted Saddam by slouching in his chair, causing the Iraqi leader to storm from the room. "It looked like he was sitting in a way that was disrespectful," he says.
        Saddam eventually returned to the negotiations and agreed to release the workers.
        Bourne and Richardson also disagree on details of Richardson's talks in 1996 with Cuban President Fidel Castro.
        Bourne says Richardson assured Castro that the United States would take steps to end incursions into Cuban airspace by a group of Cuban exiles called Brothers to the Rescue.
        Richardson has said he made no such assurances in winning Castro's release of three political prisoners.
        Two weeks after the prisoners were turned over to Richardson, two planes flown by members of Brothers to the Rescue were shot down by Cuban military jets.
        Despite their different recollections, Bourne remains a fan of Richardson and has donated money to his gubernatorial campaign.
        It takes a governor
        Following the mantra of do well by doing good, Richardson has built an impressive record as governor to serve as a foundation for a campaign for the White House.
        Richardson has cut taxes, increased spending, created a limited pre-kindergarten program, increased state investment in businesses, moved to reduce emissions blamed for global warming and pushed solar, wind and other alternative energies.
        "Cutting taxes is good; being pro-business is good. Putting more money in people's pockets is good," he said. "Democrats have to be more pro-economic growth."
        Grossman, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, says Richardson shouldn't be discounted in the race for the party's nomination.
        "That would be a huge mistake to underestimate Bill Richardson and his ability to be credible and competitive on the precise basket of issues that most Americans care so deeply about," he says.
        Richardson has spent most of his political life in Washington but has portrayed himself as an outsider while positioning himself for a presidential candidacy.
        In 2004, Richardson said, "Democrats can't be a Washington-based party."
        His positioning isn't surprising, given the low regard the American public has for Congress.
        During a trip last year to New Hampshire, Richardson said:
        "The real progressive ideas of this country, the real solutions, are in statehouses, and not in the Congress and not in the Bush administration."
        Also, as Richardson well knows, four of the most recent five presidents have been governors. John F. Kennedy was the last senator to be elected president, and that was more than 46 years ago.
        "Governors have good records of being elected presidents because we balance budgets; we deal with health care and education. ... I cut taxes. A lot of people give speeches about these issues— I've actually done it," Richardson said on ABC's "This Week" on Jan. 21.
        Contarino adds, in a not-so-subtle dig at Richardson's competitors, "Senators, they pass bills and make speeches."
        Bill Clinton, in his run for the presidency in 1992, described himself as "a different kind of Democrat." Bush picked up on the theme, calling himself "a different kind of Republican."
        Richardson, making a similar pitch, last year described his approach of tax cuts, education opportunity and economic development as the "new progressivism."
        During his political career, he has been pro-business; against gun control, gay marriage and flag burning; for the death penalty and free trade.
        Richardson also has said Democratic leaders should be "more inclusive of those Democrats that have not been part of our fold, like the pro-life people."
        He also has suggested that Democratic leaders tweak their language to include references to values and religion, maybe even with a few lines of Scripture.
        Throughout his political career, Richardson has been more interested in compromise than ideology, a practical approach to governing that should appeal to voters.
        "I believe this nation needs a unifier, a healer, somebody that can work across party lines," he said in an interview in January.
        A day after he announced he was testing the waters for the presidency, he said:
        "My message is that ... America needs to be brought back together and America needs someone that can make a difference and get these jobs done."
        Bottom line: Can he?
        Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois are considered the early top contenders for the Democratic nomination.
        Richardson is in a different area code, polling in the single digits and lacking the name recognition of any of the top three.
        "As far as name recognition goes ... he might as well be in the federal witness protection program," an Arizona newspaper columnist wrote in November.
        Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell says one of Richardson's weaknesses is that he comes from such a small state.
        "I got more votes in the city of Philadelphia than he got in the entire state of New Mexico," Rendell says.
        Even Richardson's father-in-law, John Flavin, has doubts about a candidacy succeeding.
        "We all know him, and he's known in political circles, but does the man on the street know him?" Flavin asks.
        To move into the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates, Richardson will need to do more than show organizational and financial support this year, Contarino says.
        "You got to say something," he says. "I don't think you can be elected as a resume candidate. I wish you could, because we'd be the front-runner."
        Contarino says Richardson will need to convince voters that his experience and ideas are the right experiences and ideas for the country at this time.
        "He's got real hands-on foreign policy experience that I don't know of anybody in the current field has," he says.
        Pitney, of Claremont McKenna, says Richardson now benefits from low expectations for his candidacy but has a high fundraising potential.
        "If I had to bet on anybody from the second tier of candidates advancing to the first tier, it would be Richardson," he says.
        Although Clinton leads in early polling, there are lingering questions about her electability in the 2008 general election.
        A poll released in December by Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion found Clinton leading by a wide margin but with 47 percent of registered voters saying they would definitely not consider voting for her.
        The question for Richardson is whether Democrats might turn to him as a Clinton alternative.
        The governor had kind words for the former first lady in September.
        "I think she'd be a formidable candidate for president," he said. "She's been a first-rate senator. I'm not among those that think she can't win. I think anybody can win with a strong message and with a good campaign."
        Richardson is expected to make a case that being a Hispanic Westerner makes him electable in a general election for the presidency.
        "The West is the most fertile area to bring Democratic gains in 2008," he said last year.
        He also has said:
        Democrats "should concentrate on either a Western strategy— a Western/Hispanic strategy— which is basically Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida, or we should try to pick off one or two states in the Midwest. Those have to be the two options to win the presidency."
        One of the biggest questions lingering over the 2008 presidential election is whether the nation is ready to elect a woman like Clinton, a black like Obama or a Hispanic like Richardson to a job that has always been held by Anglo men.
        "I believe a minority or a woman could be elected," Richardson has said. "It's just got to be the right message. You've got to appeal to the American mainstream.
        "You can't run as a woman or a Hispanic. You run as an American, a healer. And I believe such a candidate, regardless of their ethnicity, could be elected."
        Richardson also said in 2005 that America is "a very tolerant nation."
        "I think Americans will embrace somebody that has values, wants to make a difference, they can connect with. Cares. Race and ethnicity are perhaps factors in some regions. But overall, I doubt that would be an issue."
        Pitney says Richardson is a long shot, but he adds:
        "Someone that well-qualified can't be counted out."
    The complete series, High Ambition: Richardson Eyes the White House, will be available as a reprint beginning Feb. 26. The reprints are $1 to anyone picking them up at the library in Journal Center, 7777 Jefferson NE. For mailed copies, send $2.50 and your address to the Journal Library, Albuquerque Publishing Co., P.O. Drawer J, Albuquerque, N.M., 87103.