The Ad Campaign: Richardson’s Gift to Iowa: A Little Humor
Candidate Has an Eye on Edging Up to No. 3
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, Oct. 8 — By Bill Richardson’s own admission, he is neither the richest, nor the most popular, nor the most glamorous of the Democratic candidates.
But as Mr. Richardson, New Mexico’s governor, campaigns with a strongly antiwar message — that the troops in Iraq must be withdrawn now — he has managed to stand out from fellow Democrats, and has been slowly and steadily rising in the polls. His rise has not been enough to overtake any of the top three candidates, but he is edging closer and making an already complicated Democratic race even more so.
Polls show Mr. Richardson having the support of roughly 1 in 10 voters in Iowa, and about the same in New Hampshire. He has raised a healthy $5.2 million in the July-to-September quarter, just $2 million shy of former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. And that money is translating into additional resources here in Iowa, where he now has 75 workers on the ground — about half the number of campaign workers Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois have — and 15 field offices, again about half the number the front-runners have.
One reason for Mr. Richardson’s showing has been the $2 million he has spent on a series of humorous television advertisements that are popular in Iowa and have been broadcast 4,000 times, according to Advertising Age, a trade publication. They also have had nearly 220,000 hits on YouTube.com. In what has become a campaign classic, Mr. Richardson deftly establishes his biography — former energy secretary, former United Nations ambassador and negotiator with dictators — in a series of mock “job interviews” before a bored potential employer who, while munching on a sandwich, remains decidedly unimpressed.
That self-deprecating humor is fully evidenced on the campaign trail. In talking about his affection for small towns in a recent swing through Iowa, he said, “I even go to towns where there are no people,” and, pausing for effect, added, “I have some of my best meetings there.”
Yet the challenge for Mr. Richardson is whether he can break out of the “also ran” status as the fourth-ranked candidate on the Democratic side and knock off one of the top three, with his aim, according to his campaign staff, squarely on the person in the No. 3 spot: Mr. Edwards, who has been losing ground lately as the Clinton and Obama campaigns devote more resources here.
Julie Bryant, who had organized fellow military veterans for Mr. Edwards in 2004, said she has not yet made up her mind in this race. But she said she was impressed by Mr. Richardson’s résumé and his position on Iraq.
Ms. Bryant was at the Johnson County fairgrounds on Saturday, where Mr. Richardson and most of the Democratic candidates attended the county’s annual barbecue. “He’s got a lot of experience, and that impresses me,” said Ms. Bryant, of Iowa City. “Richardson is calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and that is a good idea. I’m just starting to get to know him.”
Mr. Richardson noted in an interview that many Iowans “are shopping around,” but added: “I believe that Edwards’s insurmountable lead has eroded. We’re the only candidate moving up, gradually and slowly moving up. We are exactly where we want to be, and my objective is to be one of the top three.”
That may be a tall order, however. Mr. Richardson is hoping that his antiwar stance will provide an alternative to his opponents — his call for immediate withdrawal stands in contrast to the top three candidates, who say they would leave residual forces behind. To that end, he has begun to broadcast television advertisements in New Hampshire in which prominent antiwar activists endorse him, and may start them in Iowa.
Thursday, he is to release his education plan in New Hampshire, urging that the No Child Left Behind Law be scrapped.
But the challenge Mr. Richardson faces beating Mr. Edwards was evident at the barbecue. On a miserably humid day at the fairgrounds, Mr. Richardson, dripping in sweat, was working the crowd — sort of.
Hardly any campaign signs heralded his arrival, no scrum of supporters followed him around, and he was easily distracted into chats with nonvoters, like a discussion about African politics with a group of visiting women resplendent in their colorful native dresses.
Just a few feet away, there was Mr. Edwards, looking cool and crisp, followed by a merry band of sign-waving supporters chanting “Go, John, go.” Meanwhile, the fairgrounds were plastered with hundreds of signs proclaiming “Hillary” and “Obama” — a testament to the fat war chests that both have to spend on their campaigns.
In what has become a campaign mantra, Mr. Richardson emphasizes that while Mr. Obama says he represents change and while Mrs. Clinton touts her experience — “with Bill Richardson, you get both, change and experience.” He also likes to point out that four of the last five presidents have been governors.
Even more ambitiously, he is hoping that if he does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will do even better in the nationwide primaries on Feb. 5, which include a number of Western states where his staff says he has a built-in following.
“The West is the future of the Democratic Party,” said Robert Becker, the Richardson campaign’s Iowa director. “If anyone can turn it loose, Richardson can.”
The core of Mr. Richardson’s message about his experience is that as governor, he has balanced the state budget for five years, increased the minimum wage, cut taxes and improved job growth. He refers frequently to his diplomatic credentials, including going “head-to-head with Saddam Hussein” to obtain the release of American prisoners in Iraq and negotiating with leaders of North Korea and Sudan.
In Iowa, he is taking a page from Mr. Edwards’s playbook and courting rural Iowans — who, under the complicated rules of the caucus, have disproportionate power and who may be uncomfortable supporting a woman or a black man.
For these conservative voters, even though Mr. Richardson is the first Hispanic to seek the presidency, his name does not give that away and Mr. Richardson does not define himself as the “Hispanic candidate.”
“I am proud to be Hispanic,” Mr. Richardson said. “But I am not wearing it on my sleeve.”
At the Johnson County fairgrounds on Saturday, Mr. Richardson followed Mr. Edwards in the candidates’ forum and each made campaign stops at the same high school in Washington, Iowa. While not naming Mr. Edwards, Mr. Richardson is not above taking a shot: “If you want a Democrat who divides the rich from the poor and who talks about class warfare, that’s not me.”
Further complicating Mr. Richardson’s political calculations is that New Mexico’s Republican senator, Pete V. Domenici, has announced his retirement and top Democratic party leaders — among them Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada — are pressuring him to run for that seat.
With Mr. Richardson’s popularity in New Mexico polling at nearly 70 percent, he is seen by Democrats as their best hope of picking up the seat. Mr. Richardson, who would have to announce his Senate candidacy by Feb. 8, is having none of it: “I’m not going to run. I’m running for president and if I don’t get it, I love being governor.”
One big concern of Iowa Democrats is backing a candidate who can retake the White House — regardless of their antiwar stance. At nearly every stop, Iowans repeatedly cited Mr. Richardson’s résumé and foreign policy experience as a positive, but said that most of all, they just wanted someone who could beat a Republican.
“I like his foreign policy statements,” Laurie Dahms of Iowa City said at the fairgrounds. “And I love his commercials. I just want someone with good experience who can win.”
Her friend Diane Muchatka, also of Iowa City, said: “I like his résumé. That is important this year. But I’m not sure who will be electable.”
After listening to Mr. Richardson at the Fiesta restaurant, Bob McMahon of Muscatine, Iowa, who is undecided, and his wife, Betty, who is in the Clinton camp, said what they want most is someone who can win in the fall.
Mr. McMahon then added the refrain that Mr. Richardson does not like to hear: “He’d make a great vice president.”