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Richardson finds gaining support among Hispanics is no sure thing

Lesley Clark
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

WASHINGTON - Though he says he's not seeking the presidency as the "Hispanic candidate," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is proving a rock star among the Spanish-language press, and Democrats hope his presence among presidential contenders will fire up Hispanic voters.

Still, his popularity isn't translating into unified support among prominent Hispanic Democrats, many of whom have signed on with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, despite voicing pride in Richardson's candidacy.

Observers say the two-term governor has an impressive resume: He's a globe-trotting diplomatic troubleshooter and former seven-term member of Congress who served as a Clinton-era energy secretary and has personality and garrulousness to spare.

And they warn not to count out the much experienced Richardson should one of the top-tier candidates stumble.

But sheer political calculation and loyalty to Clinton and her husband are trumping ethnic ties, as Hispanic Democrats such as longtime National Council of La Raza leader Raul Yzaguirre and 2004 Kerry campaign co-chair Jose Villarreal have signed up with the New York senator.

"A lot of people are thrilled with the historic significance for Governor Richardson," said Villarreal, a San Antonio lawyer who was deputy campaign manager for Bill Clinton in 1992. "But for a lot of us, our political identity is wrapped around the Clinton experience."

The situation mirrors that of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who's competing with the better-known Clinton for support among black Democrats. An ABC News/Washington Post poll last month showed her with a 26-point advantage over Obama among black Democratic voters.

"There's no way you can look at her candidacy without looking at her husband's, and he had a proven track record in both communities," noted Shawnta Walcott of the polling firm Ariel & Ethan, which specializes in polling ethnic groups.

Richardson, who makes his official debut in Hispanic-rich Florida on Saturday, faces similar territory in South Florida: Clinton has hired Sergio Bendixen, an influential Miami pollster who worked in 2004 for the New Democrat Network, an independent group that ran a Hispanic voter outreach effort. And she's tapped prominent local Hispanic donors.

Richardson, 59, whose father was Anglo and mother is Mexican, readily acknowledges his underdog status. But the first primary, he notes, is still more than 10 months away.

"Stay loose," he said to activists at the Democratic National Committee's recent winter meeting in Washington. "We've got a year to go."

In a telephone interview, Richardson said he's comfortable with his campaign's pace. He's raising money - capping a week in which he raised $2 million at a single fundraiser for a campaign that's expected to cost hundreds of millions.

"Obviously, the big rock stars are gobbling the attention, but we've really gained momentum in recent weeks," Richardson said. "Going head to head with the other candidates, what is increasingly evident is I've got the best background, the best tools for the job. What I need to do is get around the country and share that.

"That's fine with me. My objective is not to create a list of big-name endorsements. My message is I'm a governor who is prepared to be president.

"I'm not running as a Hispanic candidate," Richardson added. "Hispanic voters should not vote for me just because I'm Hispanic. They should vote for me because of my record of getting things done."

He leaves it to others - recently, a number of Spanish-language reporters who cover the Spanish-fluent governor as closely as any first-tier candidate - to suggest that his status as a potential Hispanic history maker has been overshadowed by the media fascination with Clinton and Obama.

Richardson earned raves for his speech at the DNC meeting, and his performance this week at the Democrats' first candidate forum, in Nevada, had some suggesting that he's well positioned to move out of the second tier of candidates should the top contenders stumble.

"He's definitely someone you don't want to discount," said Jose Cancela, who heads a Miami-based Hispanic consulting firm and has yet to commit to a candidate. "The possibility of peaking early is high on people's radar, and Richardson has the resume and the tentacles down here to respond."

Richardson positions himself as the only candidate with executive and international experience. He followed seven terms in Congress with stints as energy secretary, U.N. ambassador and governor. He's tangled with dictators and secured the release of political prisoners in several countries, including Cuba.

As governor, he touts as his achievements increases in teacher salaries and the promotion of renewable energy, including tax credits for using wind, solar and biofuels.

He advocates pulling troops out of Iraq "by the end of the year" but not without convening a regional conference with Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to help stabilize the country.

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