Bill Richardson's Lay of the Iowa Land
BEDFORD, Iowa - New Mexico Bill Richardson has barnstormed 95 of Iowa's 99 counties, wooing rural Democrats with his pro-gun record and urban caucus goers with his aggressive Iraq withdrawal plan. He has fielded questions on every imaginable subject, from term limits to the space station. The Richardson style is frank but casual. He leans forward in his cowboy boots, fists jammed in his suit pocket.
Here's how the veteran lawmaker, cabinet secretary and diplomat assesses the Iowa scene:
-- Democrats here are sick of being told who's winning and who's losing, based on national polls. They feel that's their decision to make on Jan. 3. According to Richardson, who is residing in fourth place, the playing field couldn't be more wide open. The "inevitability argument" appears to be a particular burden for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. "That's something that's hurting (her) a bit," Richardson noted.
-- Democrats are desperate to win the general election and are seeking the strongest possible candidate to counter an expected Republican assault. "Whoever of the candidates to show that they can change the country, and know how to do it and have the experience to do it, is going to be doing well," Richardson said.
-- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other D.C. Democrats are as unpopular in the Hawkeye state as President Bush. Richardson said an "anti-Washington dysfunctional relationship-feeling" pervades the Iowa landscape and that the Democratic Congress has been a huge disappointment, by failing to end the war or find common ground with Republicans on a whole host of important issues. "We all worked to elect them, and nothing's getting done. The partisanship continues," said Richardson, summing up the mood.
-- Wooing these practical yet fickle Midwesterners takes a lot of hard work, all the way to caucus day. "Iowa voters are very volatile," said Richardson. "They can switch back and forth to you, so you have to have a strong finish. Even after they sign the pledge card, (former Sen. John) Edwards will come by and they'll like him, and he's the last one to talk to them. So you've got to have follow up."
"We have a good organization," Richardson added. "We don't have as many as the others."
His niche is the positive moderate, similar to Edwards circa 2004. Indeed, Richardson is trying to eat into Edwards' support among working class, small town caucus goers. "I think Edwards tends to attract the same people I need to attract," Richardson said. His events also draw large numbers of older women - part of Clinton's target audience. "I like her, but I think she's too polarizing," said Mary Kathryn Gepner, a librarian who attended a Richardson event in Mt. Ayr, and lists Edwards and Richardson as her first and second choices.
Richardson also has emerged as an unofficial moderator of the mudslinging that has intensified in recent weeks among the top-tier Democrats - Edwards, Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama. The governor believes the negativity helps him in the short term, but could harm the party's general election chances. He has repeatedly rebuked Edwards for roughing up Clinton, but he also criticized Clinton for ridiculing Obama's statement last week that living abroad as a child helped to inform his foreign policy views.
"That crosses the line," said Richardson. "I think she should criticize his views on foreign policy. Maybe it is legitimate that he's been in the Senate three years on the Foreign Relations Committee, but not the childhood. That resonated with me. My childhood was in Mexico. I think the fact that I'm bi-cultural has enhanced my ability to be a public official, to be a diplomat, to understand other points of view. So that kind of hit home."
Richardson's Hispanic heritage makes him one of three Democrats, along with Clinton and Obama, who would make history if they win their party's nomination. But in only one area, Richardson said, does he believe voters are swayed by his roots.
"I probably get more immigration questions that others, and that's logical, because I'm a border governor. I'm Hispanic. And I think voters want to be assured I'm going to have a responsible position on immigration. Until I tell them, they have questions."
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