Can Richardson build national appeal?


Gov. Bill Richardson knows how to win elections in New Mexico. But how can he do in states where he’s not well-known — or not known at all?

That’s the question Richardson must answer in the next several months as he sets sail for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Richardson’s campaign manager, Dave Contarino, acknowledges that while there are new, important locales in the primary picture, the governor must do well in traditional primary-caucus states like New Hampshire and Iowa — places where Bill Richardson is not a household name.

“The road to the presidency, notwithstanding the introduction of Nevada and the heightened importance of South Carolina, still runs through Iowa and New Hampshire,” Contarino said.

In an interview, Contarino outlined the lay of the land for a vital stretch that comes in January.

Many observers say the Early Four (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) will separate contenders from pretenders in the Democratic race.

Iowa caucus, Jan. 14:

“Iowa is a complicated state,” Contarino said. “You’ve got a very popular, just-retired governor (Tom Vilsack); you’ve got John Edwards, who practically lived there four years ago and has visited many, many, many times; you have a next-door senator (Illinois’ Barack Obama) who is very popular, a Midwesterner; and you’ve got the favorite front-runner (Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York).”

Complications notwithstanding, Contarino said Richardson will head north in early March to get started.

“Because of the national press, (because) it’s the first caucus, because of everything, you have to go there,” he said. “You have to go there, but the expectations for the governor there aren’t much better than fifth or sixth place at this point.”

Contarino said Richardson likely will wave his resume at Iowans, hoping to “show people that a record like the governor’s is popular.”

The down-home feel of Iowa’s caucus format may help the garrulous Richardson, who excels in banter.

Nevada caucus, Jan. 19:

Richardson has never made secret the fact he must do well in the West, but Contarino says the race there may be one of the biggest unknowns for everyone involved.

“I don’t think anybody can tell you how the Nevada caucuses are going to unfold,” Contarino said. “Clearly, we’re talking to a lot of Nevada people, but even they don’t know.”

Richardson lobbied for an early date in Nevada as head of the Democratic Governors Association. He likely will visit both big and small towns in Nevada, which, like New Mexico, has a major urban area and many far-flung rural voters.

Richardson has already made one stop in Minden, population 3,000.

“There tends to be huge turnout in the rural areas of Nevada, but the ballgame is going to be largely won or lost in Las Vegas,” Contarino said.

New Hampshire primary, Jan. 22:

Richardson is banking on the unpredictable nature of New Hampshire, which has provided its share of surprises to the Democratic Party over the years.

“New Hampshire loves underdogs,” Contarino said, smiling.

The governor’s campaign hopes unaffiliated voters give Richardson the support he needs.

Even before announcing he was running for president, Richardson traveled frequently to New Hampshire. It was one of the first hints that he was considering a bid for the White House.

“Of course, the big riddle right now is where New Hampshire is going to end up,” Contarino said.

Richardson is close to Gov. John Lynch, Contarino said, and apparently has plenty of other friends there.

During the weekend, Richardson attended several small house parties in the state.

South Carolina primary, Jan. 29:

Background and geography are not in Richardson’s favor. North Carolina’s Edwards is a familiar neighbor, and about half of the state’s primary voters are black, which may favor Obama.

First-glance loyalties aside, Contarino said, party voters are essentially open to new faces, however.

One of Richardson’s first opportunities to reach South Carolina voters comes April 26, when South Carolina State University in Orangeburg hosts the second Democratic presidential debate.

(Contact Kate Nash of The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M., at