At a recent combined fundraising-campaign stop in Pittsburgh, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he believed his debate performance in New Hampshire the night before had been the “breakthrough that he needed to move up into the first tier” of candidates.
Referring to his break on Iraq war policy from Democrat front-runners Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards -- they all had refused to pledge that U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by the end of their first or second term as the next president -- Richardson said he was feeling confident.
“My position on Iraq is going to separate me from the other candidates,” he said. “I do not believe in leaving any residual troops. I would bring them back within a year, starting with my first day in office.”
Yet for his candidacy for president to stay alive, Richardson conceded that he must win the “third and final ticket out of Iowa” when the state’s 2008 caucus is held in January.
So can Richardson get his Iowa ticket punched, especially when Clinton, Obama and Edwards are in a virtual tie there and he trails them by at least 7 points in the polls?
“Anything is possible,” thinks Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “While Richardson has not shown up well in the debates and he’s made some sloppy statements ... he still has the best resume and is well positioned in the West, where Democrats must do better in 2008 if they are to win.”
On paper, Richardson is enormously experienced. With congressional, Cabinet, international and executive positions under his belt, he has the most extensive political biography of anyone running for the nomination -- in either party. But Democrat voters have already made a judgment about which candidate is the most experienced, giving that title to Clinton.
So Richardson needs to move on to something else.
His only political “Hail Mary” play seems to be staying to the left of all of the other leading candidates on the war.
Until recently, Edwards has been driving the get-out-of-Iraq-tomorrow debate; he was the candidate most responsible for Clinton and Obama voting to cut off funding for the war. But Edwards gave all that up in the New Hampshire debate, when he basically said there is no difference between him, Barack and Hillary when it comes to getting out of Iraq.
Edwards’ attempt to appear "presidential" and less extreme on Iraq has become Richardson’s opportunity. What Richardson must avoid, though, is coming across as desperate.
The scales of running for president are weighted, with campaigning, campaign promises and doing-anything-to-get-elected on one side and being a statesman who takes tough positions on the other side.
Until now, Richardson was the guy who wanted to be seen as a statesman. As a former U.N. ambassador who negotiated with international tough-guys, he could pull that off. Now, not so much.
If voters want a statesman, they might want to look at Joe Biden. With his plan for a "soft-partition" of Iraq, he's the only Democrat candidate who is talking about foreign policy in a substantive way -- and who, by the way, is not catching fire with anybody.
Democrat strategist Steve McMahon thinks it all depends on how Richardson handles the fleeting moment of political notoriety his Iraq position has given him.
“Hillary, Barack and Edwards gave him a new argument to run on -- they served it up on a platter in New Hampshire,” McMahon said. “The question is whether or not the platter is left there or whether it is taken around Iowa and all of the other early primary states -- and what he does with it."