On paper, Gov. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico has the résumé of a top-tier presidential candidate: a two-term governor, 14 years as a member of Congress, secretary of Energy under President Clinton, and former United Nations ambassador.
As the son of a Mexican mother and half-Mexican father, Governor Richardson also has the potential to win a significant portion of the Hispanic vote, one of the fastest-growing segments of the US electorate.
So far, in the early going of the 2008 presidential nomination battle, Richardson has remained mired in low single digits in national polls of Democratic voters. Many voters still don't know who he is, as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards have dominated news coverage from the start and built the biggest campaign war chests.
Now that Richardson has formally declared his candidacy, the ultimate question looms: Can he pull all the pieces together and fulfill his potential? Already, in the most important states in the nomination schedule, there are signs that the picture is shifting.
The latest Des Moines Register poll shows Richardson at 10 percent in Iowa, where caucuses start the process in January. In New Hampshire, home of the first primary, independent pollster John Zogby now shows Richardson at 10 percent. Ultimately, Nevada, with a large and growing Hispanic population and perhaps an affinity for a fellow Westerner, could be key to Richardson's prospects, as the state holds early nominating caucuses for the first time, analysts say.
"His best bet is probably to do well enough in Iowa to attract attention, win in Nevada, do very well in New Hampshire, and then generate national attention, along with a mixed result among the front-runners," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is not affiliated with any of his party's presidential candidates. "From there, he could maneuver."
For all the second-tier candidates, the best hope is that the three people in line ahead of them self-destruct, but that's not something Richardson or the others can count on, Mr. Mellman adds.
Richardson knows that. In the first quarter of 2007, he raised $6.2 million, a sum that would have made for splashy headlines in previous election cycles. But in this overheated race to succeed President Bush, it placed Richardson at a distant fourth place in the money primary. Still, it is enough to make major ad buys in the early states, and that's exactly what he is doing.
"His strategy is clearly this: I'm not getting the name recognition that I need, so I'm going to spend all my cash on TV to see if I can pump that up," says Lonna Rae Atkeson, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "It's sort of a premomentum strategy."
As pieces of political theater, Richardson's ads win critical acclaim for their entertainment value. In his race for reelection as governor last fall (which he won with 69 percent of the vote), he dressed up as a sheriff and touted his record on law enforcement and jobs. His latest ads, called "Job Interview" and "Tell Me," have turned into viral Internet hits. A job interviewer sits down with Richardson, lists off his string of accomplishments, and then says, "So, what makes you think you can be president?" to which Richardson turns and gives a withering look to the camera.
If clever ads about his résumé give Richardson a fighting chance, the growing Hispanic vote – and support from key Hispanic leaders – could be his other ace. For now, polls show many Hispanic voters do not know that Richardson shares their ethnicity. But even as he seeks to advertise his heritage, noting it in his announcement speech on Monday – an address he delivered alternately in Spanish and English – Richardson has also made clear he is making his pitch to all Americans, not just Latinos.
Still, the Hispanic dimension of his candidacy is key to his chances and could help mitigate the downside of not being centered in one of the major campaign money centers of Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
"My perception is that his campaign strategy has been to get a huge boost from the Hispanic community, the Hispanic media, and even donors within the Hispanic community, to help catapult him and carry him along until the point where he starts taking off in the polls in key states," says Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.
So far he is getting support from high-profile Hispanics such as Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and Clinton administration Cabinet secretary, and Lionel Sosa, a Republican media consultant. But another Hispanic leader, Raul Yzaguirre, former head of the National Council of La Raza, has signed on with Senator Clinton.
"If you're given the chance to be head of Hispanic outreach for the front-runner, it's hard to turn down," says Mr. Segal. "A lot of folks want to be on the winning team. But there are a lot of practical folks who will give a tremendous amount of money to the Richardson campaign."