Richardson's Handshake Gamble

To a crowd of more than one hundred people gathered under towering oaks in the backyard of his house in Dover, N.H., on Monday afternoon, former mayor William Boc introduced Bill Richardson, who was there asking for their votes in the Democratic presidential primary.

Boc noted that house parties like the one he was hosting for Richardson adhere to a cherished New Hampshire tradition in which voters expect highly personal campaigning by the presidential candidates. "We want to talk to you in our backyards. We want to shake your hand, and we want to ask you some questions," Boc said.

That's jibed exactly with Richardson's intentions, and Boc's words only egged him on. "We're building grass-roots support by going voter to voter," Richardson told the crowd a few moments later, "and I love doing it."

In at least one respect, the New Hampshire primary and Richardson seem perfectly matched. The New Mexico governor is basing his long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination not only on his thick curriculum vitae and mainstream political views, but also on his knack for the kind of personal campaigning that's sacred to New Hampshire.

As the consensus among political experts would have it, Richardson is a second-tier candidate, lagging behind the likes of senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards in the eight-person Democratic field. When it comes to so-called retail campaigning, however, Richardson may have an edge in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary, which is set for Jan. 22 but may be moved to an earlier date for maximum impact.

Even for a pol, Richardson's skill in projecting a folksy, extroverted manner is remarkable. Slate once wrote that personal politics is his "supreme talent." That talent has been a big plus in Richardson's political career, which includes 15 years as a congressman and a troubleshooting diplomat, United Nations ambassador and energy secretary under President Clinton. The Guinness Book of Records even recognizes him as the political world's handshaking champ, having pumped 13,392 hands at the New Mexico State Fair within eight hours during his successful campaign for governor in 2002.

At 59, Richardson is a jowly version of his former self but is stumping New Hampshire with a young man's intensity. On July 4 he was the only Democratic presidential candidate marching in New Hampshire parades (he hit three of them), considered a high-value political ritual. A photo of a grinning Richardson in the thick of the parade at Greenville, a famously funky celebration that starts at midnight and features the banging of pots and pans, made page one of the weekly Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Back in the state for a day and a half early this week -- he has devoted 15 days to visiting New Hampshire so far this year, compared to 10 in Iowa -- Richardson followed a schedule of house parties and other events at which he talked to small groups or individuals, responding to questions and shaking hands.

His soothingly-balanced answers to questions elicited little applause, though listeners appeared to warm to his self-deprecating humor. "I'm not the blow-dried candidate. I'm overweight. I'm on a diet today, and I'm miserable," he said to laughter in Dover.

At each stop he cited polls suggesting that support for him was rising in the state. A just-released poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center shows him in third place with close to 10 percent of the respondents picking him as their preferred candidate. This is a significant increase, coinciding with a series of humorous spots that Richardson has aired in recent weeks on New Hampshire TV stations portraying him as a humble, if exceptionally qualified, job applicant.

He nonetheless trailed far behind Clinton (33 percent) and Obama (25 percent), although he nudged ahead of Edwards (8 percent). Nationwide, Richardson's support was hovering at 3 percent, according to Pollster.com, which publishes an average of several polls.

Discussing how he might close the gulf between him and the front-runners, Richardson told me that his strategy resembles that of Jimmy Carter's in 1976. Carter embarked on his presidential quest in 1975, a peanut farmer largely unknown outside of his home state of Georgia. He had just completed a four-year term as governor.

Carter virtually lived in Iowa and New Hampshire for months, talking to small groups, often carrying his own bags and sleeping in supporters' houses. He scored a victory in the Iowa causes, won a narrow plurality of 28.4 percent in the New Hampshire primary and rode those coups to success in later primaries.

A "catapult" strategy, as Richardson put it, could benefit from the extraordinarily compressed schedule of caucus and primary contests in 2008. If Richardson were to win or make a surprisingly strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, that might catapult him to wins in the possibly 20-state-plus sweepstakes on Super Tuesday, February 5.

Unlike Carter, however, Richardson is a sitting governor who must attend to business at home while running for president.

Further, he must prevail against three front-runners of celebrity caliber: a former First Lady, a star-dusted African-American phenomenon, and a former Democratic vice-presidential nominee. (Carter's main opponents were three relatively obscure members of Congress -- Morris Udall, Birch Bayh, and Fred Harris -- and a controversial governor, George Wallace.) To vanquish all three of the front-runners in 2008 would be no small feat.

"I don't have the most glamour," Richardson said, responding to that point at an impromptu press conference in Concord this week. "But I believe I have the best credentials and the best plan for this country. I represent change, and I represent experience and, most important, electability."

When they have appeared in New Hampshire, Clinton and Obama sometimes have attracted crowds of more than a thousand people, huge audiences at this stage of the New Hampshire primary season. On a swing through southern New Hampshire on Friday, for example, Clinton played her crowd-drawing trump card -- her husband -- at big rallies at Keene, Nashua and Manchester.

Such events introduce the candidates in person to large crowds but may not satisfy voters' demands for eye-to-eye, informal interaction with the candidates. In 1999 Al Gore learned about the constraints of such big-shot campaigning. He was then Vice President Gore running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his appearances were tightly choreographed.

"They'd come in, and they'd have the backdrop. We'd have the questions ahead of time, and we knew exactly who we were going to call on," recalled Bill Shaheen, a longtime Democratic activist who was chairman of Gore's campaign in New Hampshire. With his poll numbers dipping, Gore embraced the state's traditional, town-hall style of campaigning by late summer. He ultimately bested former Sen. Bill Bradley in the primary by four percentage points.

The buffering effect of large media entourages and Secret Service agents accompanying Clinton and Obama is one factor distancing them from voters. But the front-runners have recognized the importance of mingling as closely as possible with voters and replying directly to their questions at house parties and other events and have done so. "Hillary understood from day one," said Shaheen, now a co-chairman of Clinton's campaign in New Hampshire.

Celebrity may help, but a winning personality will count for more on New Hampshire's election day, said Dick Bouley, a lobbyist and co-chairman of Richardson's campaign in the state. He touted Richardson as a "regular guy," and he explained, "People like him. He's very warm. I've heard people say, 'I'd like to have a beer with him.'"

Richardson said that he would be shaking even more hands in Iowa and New Hampshire if he did not have to break away from those states to shake loose campaign dollars elsewhere. In contrast to the front-runners, he said, he cannot rely on a wide network of fundraisers or Internet donors to stock his campaign treasury.

"Half of my time I've got to be schlepping to raise money," he said.

To compete in the contests before Super Tuesday, he said that he must raise $30 million by year-end. During the first half of 2007 his reported haul totaled $13.2 million. Clinton and Obama are on a pace to garner more than $100 million each, and Edwards would reach $44 million.

Although Richardson has said that he expects to have enough money to compete effectively, the front-runners' lopsided financial advantage is already translating into key organizational strength. For example, Edwards has hired 40 people to staff its eight regional New Hampshire offices, bases for recruiting volunteers, directing canvassing and mounting get-out-the-vote efforts. Richardson's campaign staff in the state totals 14. There is only a single office, his Manchester headquarters.

And the top candidates are already investing heavily in some of the Super Tuesday states, such as Missouri. A map depicting the offices that Clinton, Obama and Edwards all have opened in Missouri looks like a polka-dot handkerchief. Richardson is yet to open an office there.

If indeed he gets the bounce from Iowa and New Hampshire, as he hopes, he is likely to run into a canvassing barrage and well-funded TV blitz on behalf of his rivals in Missouri and other Super Tuesday states. That's a lot of headwind for even a regular guy with a penchant for shaking hands and charming voters to overcome.

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