Richardson trying to change lowly poll numbers into lofty dreams

Richardson trying to change lowly poll numbers into lofty dreams
MANY HANDS TO GO: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who holds a world record for the most handshakes in eight hours (13,392), says he has risen in polls but still is backed by only 10% of voters. (Michael Robinson Chavez / LAT)
CONCORD, N.H. — Pauline Chabot raced down the steamy hallway, struggling to catch up with the presidential candidate. He had just brought a crowd of Democrats to its feet, cheering, and all she wanted was to shake his hand, wish him well, this man with so much going for him.

He's smart, and he's funny, and he's Latino. He believes in diplomacy, and has so darn much experience. He is Bill Richardson, and Chabot has a bright, bright vision for his future.

Only it's not the one Richardson has for himself. "I tend to think of him as a vice president in the end," she said, smiling.

This is what it means to be a second-tier candidate with a first-tier resume, to travel the early primary states with lofty dreams and lowly poll numbers. This is what it means to ask for voters' confidence in one breath and their patience in the next.

This is what it means to be Bill Richardson, to run for America's top job and be asked, as he was on Monday in suburban Chicago: "What about the people who have suggested … that if you can't get out of the second tier, you'd be an awfully good running mate for somebody?"

"No, I'm not running for vice president," the New Mexico governor replied gamely. "I've been in Washington. I've had good Cabinet positions. So I'll go home. But I'm gonna win this race. I'm a tortoise. Slowly. Progress. Moving forward…. The first primary is seven months away."

Richardson may liken himself to Aesop's famous reptile, all slow and steady wins the race. But on the campaign trail one recent long weekend, he behaved more like the Energizer bunny — going and going and going.

In New Mexico and New Hampshire, Iowa, Illinois and Arizona. At fundraisers, a house party, and a major debate, a state Democratic convention and a Midwestern PrideFest. Wooing gays and lesbians, African Americans and Latinos, union members, voters, nonvoters, children.

Maybe it was an outbreak of his well-known workaholism; Richardson gets by on five hours of sleep, often nabbed these days on a chartered jet, zipping between campaign stops. Or maybe it was simply what a candidate must do when he's No. 4, at best, of eight hopefuls vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, and when everyone ahead of him is rolling in money.

Either way, he gave speeches, answered questions, posed for pictures, signed autographs. He sweated through a good dress shirt, French-blue fabric darkening to royal as the day warmed. He even sang soul on the radio with Ali Ollie Woodson of Temptations fame. "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May." (Memo to politician: Keep your day job.)

And he shook hands, lots of hands. As the proud holder of a Guinness World Record for most hands shaken in eight hours (13,392), Richardson will grab anything with fingers that moves in his peripheral vision.

But he doesn't just shake these hands. The congressman-turned-U.N. ambassador-turned-Energy Secretary-turned-Western governor has a very specific personal technique. It's outlined in his autobiography, "Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life," complete with visual aids.

"I take very seriously the ability to connect with someone through a handshake," Richardson said in a recent interview. "You grab the elbow, you shake the hand, you look straight in the eye, maybe delay the eye contact. It gives a person the sense you're connecting with them. The worst thing you can do is look over their shoulder. It's the easiest way to lose a vote."

And those hand sanitizing gels ubiquitous on the campaign trail? In a word, "insulting." Don't worry, moms, he washes often. But seeing a candidate clean up on the trail, he says, "sort of destroys the intimacy of the personal connection."

And connection is what Richardson is all about. Sure, he gives a pretty good speech, as Pauline Chabot saw last weekend at the New Hampshire state Democratic convention here, when he marched into the sweltering auditorium of Rundlett Middle School surrounded by supporters, a flag-waving war protester and an education enthusiast in a full-length apple costume of heavy red velour.

The rollicking delegates cheered his plans for energy independence, higher pay for teachers and universal healthcare, for shuttering prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and bringing the troops home from Iraq. They applauded as he laid out his campaign strategy: "I am here, grass roots, door to door, house to house."

One of those houses was a 160-year-old clapboard that belongs to Jim and Gayle Stevenson, where Richardson competed with a flock of noisy sparrows at an early morning neighborhood get-together. He gripped and grinned and outlined his stands on everything from healthcare to education.

"I think he makes some sense," said investment advisor Bob Wilson, after a short speech by Richardson and a couple of long handshakes. "More than the rest of them. He's coming up in the polls, isn't he?"

Richardson himself said so all weekend, handicapping his chances with a self-deprecating patter that goes more or less like this: "They're saying, 'Richardson, good guy, good-looking guy too, losing weight, well-prepared.' But you're all saying, 'Can he win?' We can win, and we're moving up in the polls…. We're up to 10% now. Of course, we started below the margin of error, so that's progress."

But for all of the candidate's frenetic pace and hours spent pressing the flesh, there are times out on the campaign trail when the accomplished politician looks a bit like he's winging it, resting on resume instead of hitting the briefing books.

Monday outside of Chicago was a case in point. Addressing the annual meeting of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, Richardson lauded the organization's founder and president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Today's Latino and African-American candidates, he said, "wouldn't be here without John Fitzgerald Kennedy becoming the first Catholic to run for president and Rev. Jackson becoming the first African American serious candidate for the presidency of the United States in 1988."

Except Jackson first ran for president in 1984. And although Kennedy was the first Catholic to become president, the first major party candidate to run was Al Smith, who was beaten by Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Talking to reporters in the hotel lobby after his speech, Richardson committed another political faux pas, the kind that smacks of arriving late without having done his homework.

In April, Chicago beat out Los Angeles as the U.S. contender for the 2016 summer Olympics. But when asked if he would like to see the Olympics come to the Windy City, Richardson's response was: "Are you applying?"

Campaign spokeswoman Katie Roberts defended the candidate as different from his competition, a man who travels fast and light, and often rough-hewn, perhaps, but authentic.

"This is a candidate that, as you know, is on the road six days a week and 14 hours a day," Roberts said. "This is a guy who travels only with one aide, one security agent. He wants the American people to see him as who he is. He's not over-handled by aides or consultants."

In fact, Joe Monahan, a longtime observer and a blogger on New Mexico politics, believes that Richardson's pace can lead to "sloppiness."

"People here say Bill has a bit of attention deficit disorder. He loves the activity. He crams in so much. How can you possibly be prepared without downtime and getting properly briefed?"

But if anyone has the energy and stamina for the one-on-one in New Hampshire and Iowa, Monahan continued, it's the governor of New Mexico, "as long as his hands can still shake."

Last weekend they were definitely in working order. Up and down Union Street in downtown Manchester, he knocked on doors and hugged store owners in this small city's Latino business district, trolling for votes and outlining what he sees as his biggest challenge reaching this crucial community: "Mi problema es que me llamo Richardson," he said. ("My problem is that my name is Richardson.") "Tell Latinos I'm a Latino."

Stepping out of the Latino Styles barbershop, he headed to the SUV that would take him to the airport for a flight to Iowa. Dominic Cherbonneau, 9, zipped by on his Sting-Ray bike, red-white-and-blue Richardson sign clutched to the handlebars.

"Bill, Bill," he called, "I'm gonna vote for you for president!"

Maybe, but not this time around.

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