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Richardson's Choice

By Jose Antonio Vargas
SANTA FE, N.M. -- Gov. Bill Richardson's phone has been ringing off the hook. Sen. Hillary Clinton called Sunday night. That was followed by a call from former president Bill Clinton, then a call from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who's supporting Clinton. Sen. Barack Obama called twice Monday morning.

And, at around 4 p.m. Monday, as we entered Richardson's office on the fourth floor of the state Capitol here, Richardson was finishing up a 15-minute phone conversation.

"That was Teddy," Richardson told The Trail. Sen. Ted Kennedy, who alongside his niece Caroline and son Patrick endorsed Obama at a packed rally at American University just hours before, is scheduled to stump for the Illinois senator in northern New Mexico Wednesday night. Kennedy is urging Richardson to support Obama. "Teddy's argument is that Obama can bring people together," Richardson said. "That's his rationale."

As the highest-ranking Hispanic in the Democratic Party, Richardson's endorsement is being aggressively sought by the Clinton and Obama campaigns. California, Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico are among the 22 states voting next week, and each have sizable Hispanic electorates. Richardson, who cruised to re-election as New Mexico governor in 2006, is a popular figure in the Hispanic community.

Richardson's torn. He served in the Clinton White House, first as ambassador to the United Nations, then as Clinton's Secretary of Energy. "I have a history with the Clintons," Richardson said. "And I've always liked her. She always seems very genuine." But Richardson considers Kennedy, who's long been respected by Hispanics, as "a mentor." In 1982, when Richardson ran for Congress for the second time -- he lost two years before -- Kennedy flew to Santa Fe and campaigned for him. "That might have been the reason I was elected," Richardson said. And he said he likes Obama, telling a story about how Obama saved him during one of last year's Democratic debates:

"I had just been asked a question -- I don't remember which one -- and Obama was sitting right next to me. Then the moderator went across the room, I think to Chris Dodd, so I thought I was home free for a while. I wasn't going to listen to the next question. I was about to say something to Obama when the moderator turned to me and said, 'So, Gov. Richardson, what do you think of that?' But I wasn't paying any attention! I was about to say, 'Could you repeat the question? I wasn't listening.' But I wasn't about to say I wasn't listening. I looked at Obama. I was just horrified. And Obama whispered, 'Katrina. Katrina.' The question was on Katrina! So I said, 'On Katrina, my policy . . .' Obama could have just thrown me under the bus. So I said, 'Obama, that was good of you to do that.'"

Richardson, like Clinton and Obama, waged a historic campaign. He was the first Hispanic -- he's half Mexican -- to run for president, yet his candidacy was overshadowed by Clinton and Obama. He finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire and dropped out of the Democratic race on Jan. 10, citing a lack of funds. Some political observers here are surprised that he's waited this long to endorse a candidate, though they wonder if he's negotiating a vice presidential spot in the Democratic ticket, or perhaps a place in the cabinet.

If Richardson is to endorse either Clinton or Obama -- "I might, I might not, how's that for an answer?" -- he said he'll do so by the end of the week.

"If I do endorse, it's going to be a gut feeling. It's not going to be about statistics, about past ties," Richardson said. "I've been on the campaign trail with both of them. I feel that I know them. I feel I know the issues. I feel I know what makes them both tick."

By Washington Post Editor  |  January 29, 2008; 5:53 AM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Barack Obama , Bill Richardson , Hillary Rodham Clinton , The Democrats  
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