Bill Richardson in Portsmouth

Here's what I learned my first day on the campaign trail: A lot of people want a new president.

They want one badly enough that they'll trade a beautiful Saturday afternoon for the chance to look at a candidate and fantasize about his or her presidency. Even if that presidency is nearly two years away. Even if the whole scenario is a long shot.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico came to River Run Bookstore in Portsmouth Saturday. I got there twenty minutes early and the place was already packed. The thirty chairs were long gone, and I counted about fifty people standing. Eventually there were 90 people standing in places I could see, probably another twenty or thirty in nooks that I couldn't see, and maybe thirty or forty out on the sidewalk waiting for the Governor's car to arrive. So somewhere around 180 people. Subtract, say, twenty to account for staff and media people, and that leaves more than 160 ordinary folks. In a small town. In a small state.

According to the pundits, Bill Richardson isn't even one of the top tier candidates. The media coverage is all for Clinton and Obama and maybe Edwards. Richardson cited a poll that had him at 6%, and that was probably the most favorable one he could find.

People really want a new president.

Bill RichardsonCampaign schedules invariably run late, and we were packing in tighter all the time, so I had a good opportunity to meet my neighbors. The middle-aged couple behind me had just come from a Clinton rally in Dover, where hundreds more people really want a new president. The wife described her favorable impression: Hillary was so smart, so articulate.

“That'd be different,” I commented, cracking up the husband. (Imagine having a president you'd want to show off to the other countries. It's been so long.)

The wife was also impressed that Clinton hadn't had the questions screened. One questioner said she had admired Hillary for years, but was disappointed that she hadn't apologized for her vote on Iraq. Apparently Clinton gave what has become her standard answer: Knowing what she knows now she'd have voted against the resolution, but based on what she knew then she did the right thing.

The woman behind me seemed to think this was a good answer, but I didn't. “I'm not buying it,” I said. “It was obvious at the time we were being conned. The Senate should have asked some harder questions.”

That got the husband talking; he agreed with me. The conversation fizzled.

The Governor arrived at 12:50, twenty minutes late, and it took him another five minutes to hand-shake his way to the microphone, where Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand introduced him. It was a favorable introduction, but short of a clear endorsement. He went through Richardson's resume, which was more impressive than I had realized. Richardson served in Congress for 15 years. In between Congress and the governorship he was Clinton's Secretary of Energy and ambassador to the United Nations.

That diplomatic background is a key part of Richardson's message, it turns out. Unlike the current president, he believes in diplomacy. He recently negotiated a fragile ceasefire in Darfur and he thinks we could negotiate our troops out of Iraq “this calendar year.” He believes the right framework for negotiation is to establish three sectarian regions bound loosely by a federal government. He believes the various factions would be willing to make some concessions to get foreign troops out of their country, and that he's the man to get those concessions: “I've been there. I've negotiated with Saddam Hussein. I've been at the UN. I've been to the Persian Gulf.”

It was a theme he kept coming back to. “The next president will have to restore America's standing in the world.” He listed the things America is known for today: “Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, eavesdropping on our citizens, torture, saying no the International Criminal Court.” He pledged to sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. “We need to find a way to talk to those we don't talk to,” he said, and he got a big round of applause when he promised to “restore America to a foundation of international law.”

Energy independence was a second big theme, echoing the Secretary of Energy part of his resume. It also tied together national security and the “Stop Global Warming” sticker on his lapel. He listed the countries we import oil from – a real rogue's gallery – and wondered what would happen if they tried to use it as leverage against us. “It's a national security issue,” he said. He called New Mexico “the clean energy state,” and promised to lead a “man-on-the-moon effort” to get our dependence on foreign energy down to 10% from it's current level over 60%. “We have the technology. It can be done.”

The “technology” was a variety of stuff: solar, wind, conservation, synthetic fuels, increased efficiency. He didn't promise a silver bullet. And he said, “You're going to have to sacrifice a little bit.”

The first question was about the New Hampshire primary itself and whether Richardson had supported efforts to make it less important. His answer was too complicated and I tuned out. In truth, I find the whole issue embarrassing, because it works against itself: If New Hampshire uses its special status to get concessions from candidates, that's a good argument against us keeping our special status. So shut up about it already and ask the questions the rest of the country wishes it could ask.

The rest of the questioners did that. The second question was about immigration, which ought to be another signature issue for Richardson, given that he is both Hispanic and the governor of a state that borders Mexico. He had a five-point plan:

His answer to a health care question was impassioned but vague. He believes in national health care as a goal, and had said so in his prepared remarks. It sounds like he wants to chip away at the problem from a variety of directions rather than endorse a single-payer system or some other comprehensive national plan. And so he supports health care programs for children under five and for working adults. He said that he likes the programs proposed by the Republican governors of Massachusetts and California.

But on how to pay for national health care, he didn't even dance: “I don't know.” He says he's working on it, and that he doesn't want to pay for it with a tax. He clearly doesn't want to be tarred with the tax-and-spend label, and also backed away from “class warfare” and “redistribution”.

Richardson summed up with these points:

I'm left with the general impression that we could do a lot worse than to have Bill Richardson as our president, and that we are doing a lot worse now. His resume is almost an exact match with the country's major problems. He's smart, and I'm sure Joe Biden will be interested to hear that Hispanic candidates can also be articulate.

I wish I heard more of a big vision out of him. He is more of a technocrat than a visionary. The picture I get from his talk is that our problems could be solved if we just did government better: negotiated better, managed better, used technology better. Given the government we have now, a competent, well-intentioned administration would be a refreshing change. But I find myself wishing for more.

As a national candidate, Richardson is still learning. His humor is still a little off; I found its lameness engaging, but many people won't. He thinks faster than he talks sometimes, and I'm sure that will get him in trouble if he breaks into the top tier of candidates. At one point, for example, he confused two ways to say the same thing and came out with “fight child obesity programs.” Then he realized his mistake and made it again: “I don't mean fight them, I mean reduce them.” He meant expand them.

That sounds trivial, but the Republican media machine will jump on such stuff if they start seeing Richardson as a threat. Kerry's blown punchline was a mistake of that order, and it dominated the news for days last October. Someday Richardson will mean to say “We can't give in to the terrorists” and it will come out “We have to give in to the terrorists.” The video clip will be on YouTube by nightfall and then the fun will begin. In the current media environment conservatives can get away with mistakes like that – Bush has probably made one since I started typing this – but liberals can't. It's just a fact of life.

The exciting thing about a Richardson candidacy is to wonder what it would do in November. With all the attention our black candidate and our female candidate are drawing, our Hispanic candidate is flying totally under the radar. Pundits love to speculate on what the Democrats could do to win a state or two in the South, but the real opportunity is in the West. Gore took New Mexico and Kerry was close in Nevada, Colorado, and even Arizona. If we had a southwestern Hispanic on the ticket – in either slot – things could get very interesting.

So: Hillary and Bill, maybe?

Nah, it's been done.

Doug Muder

17 February 2007

See all the reports on the New Hampshire Primary campaign.