World & Nation

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)
Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.H. — Pauline Chabot raced down the steamy hallway,struggling to catch up with the presidential candidate. He had justbrought a crowd of Democrats to its feet, cheering, and all shewanted was to shake his hand, wish him well, this man with so muchgoing for him.

He’s smart, and he’s funny, and he’s Latino. He believes indiplomacy, 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 thinkof him as a vice president in the end,” she said, smiling.

This is what it means to be a second-tier candidate with afirst-tier resume, to travel the early primary states with loftydreams and lowly poll numbers. This is what it means to ask forvoters’ confidence in one breath and their patience in thenext.

This is what it means to be Bill Richardson, to run for America’stop job and be asked, as he was on Monday in suburban Chicago:"What about the people who have suggested … that if you can’tget out of the second tier, you’d be an awfully good running matefor somebody?”

“No, I’m not running for vice president,” the New Mexico governorreplied gamely. “I’ve been in Washington. I’ve had good Cabinetpositions. So I’ll go home. But I’m gonna win this race. I’m atortoise. Slowly. Progress. Moving forward…. The first primaryis seven months away.”

Richardson may liken himself to Aesop’s famous reptile, all slowand steady wins the race. But on the campaign trail one recent longweekend, he behaved more like the Energizer bunny — going andgoing and going.

In New Mexico and New Hampshire, Iowa, Illinois and Arizona. Atfundraisers, a house party, and a major debate, a state Democraticconvention 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; Richardsongets by on five hours of sleep, often nabbed these days on achartered jet, zipping between campaign stops. Or maybe it wassimply what a candidate must do when he’s No. 4, at best, of eighthopefuls vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, and wheneveryone ahead of him is rolling in money.

Either way, he gave speeches, answered questions, posed forpictures, signed autographs. He sweated through a good dress shirt,French-blue fabric darkening to royal as the day warmed. He evensang 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’vegot the month of May.” (Memo to politician: Keep your dayjob.)

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

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

“I take very seriously the ability to connect with someone througha handshake,” Richardson said in a recent interview. “You grab theelbow, you shake the hand, you look straight in the eye, maybedelay the eye contact. It gives a person the sense you’reconnecting with them. The worst thing you can do is look over theirshoulder. It’s the easiest way to lose a vote.”

And those hand sanitizing gels ubiquitous on the campaign trail? Ina word, “insulting.” Don’t worry, moms, he washes often. But seeinga candidate clean up on the trail, he says, “sort of destroys theintimacy of the personal connection.”

And connection is what Richardson is all about. Sure, he gives apretty good speech, as Pauline Chabot saw last weekend at the NewHampshire state Democratic convention here, when he marched intothe sweltering auditorium of Rundlett Middle School surrounded bysupporters, a flag-waving war protester and an education enthusiastin 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 shutteringprisons at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and bringing the troopshome from Iraq. They applauded as he laid out his campaignstrategy: “I am here, grass roots, door to door, house tohouse.”

One of those houses was a 160-year-old clapboard that belongs toJim and Gayle Stevenson, where Richardson competed with a flock ofnoisy sparrows at an early morning neighborhood get-together. Hegripped and grinned and outlined his stands on everything fromhealthcare 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’the?”

Richardson himself said so all weekend, handicapping his chanceswith 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’sprogress.”

But for all of the candidate’s frenetic pace and hours spentpressing the flesh, there are times out on the campaign trail whenthe 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 theannual meeting of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, Richardson lauded theorganization’s founder and president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Today’s Latino and African-American candidates, he said, “wouldn’tbe here without John Fitzgerald Kennedy becoming the first Catholicto run for president and Rev. Jackson becoming the first AfricanAmerican serious candidate for the presidency of the United Statesin 1988.”

Except Jackson first ran for president in 1984. And althoughKennedy was the first Catholic to become president, the first majorparty candidate to run was Al Smith, who was beaten by HerbertHoover in 1928.

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

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

Campaign spokeswoman Katie Roberts defended the candidate asdifferent 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 aweek and 14 hours a day,” Roberts said. “This is a guy who travelsonly with one aide, one security agent. He wants the Americanpeople to see him as who he is. He’s not over-handled by aides orconsultants.”

In fact, Joe Monahan, a longtime observer and a blogger on NewMexico politics, believes that Richardson’s pace can lead to"sloppiness.”

“People here say Bill has a bit of attention deficit disorder. Heloves the activity. He crams in so much. How can you possibly beprepared without downtime and getting properly briefed?”

But if anyone has the energy and stamina for the one-on-one in NewHampshire and Iowa, Monahan continued, it’s the governor of NewMexico, “as long as his hands can still shake.”

Last weekend they were definitely in working order. Up and downUnion Street in downtown Manchester, he knocked on doors and huggedstore owners in this small city’s Latino business district,trolling for votes and outlining what he sees as his biggestchallenge reaching this crucial community: “Mi problema es queme llamo Richardson,” he said. (“My problem is that my name isRichardson.”) “Tell Latinos I’m a Latino.”

Stepping out of the Latino Styles barbershop, he headed to the SUVthat would take him to the airport for a flight to Iowa. DominicCherbonneau, 9, zipped by on his Sting-Ray bike, red-white-and-blueRichardson sign clutched to the handlebars.

“Bill, Bill,” he called, “I’m gonna vote for you forpresident!”

Maybe, but not this time around.

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