Bill Richardson gets down and dirty

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who began his race for the Democratic presidential nomination by asking competitors to sign a pledge to run only positive campaigns, is now poking sharp words at the leading Democratic candidates on Iraq as he tries to climb out of fourth place in the polls.

Richardson told a conference sponsored by liberal groups this week that Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina had all either voted for or supported bills or resolutions with timetables and “loopholes” that would allow a president to “leave an undetermined number of troops in Iraq indefinitely.”

“I would leave zero troops. Not a single one. And if the embassy and our embassy personnel aren’t safe, then they’re all coming home too,” said Richardson at a “Take Back America” conference. Earlier, he told delegates to a convention sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that “Congress has been weak in trying to stop the war.”

In February, Richardson had asked his rivals to sign a pledge not to run negative campaigns.

“I don’t buy this nonsense that negative campaigns toughen up a nominee. Save it for the Republicans,” Richardson told the Democratic National Committee on Feb. 3.

Since then, Richardson has risen to fourth place in both national polls and polls in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, behind Clinton, Obama and Edwards. But he is still only favored by about one in 10 likely primary and caucus voters, and he has struggled to get national media attention.

Richardson told reporters Tuesday that “I still am a nice guy. I am not being negative. I am pointing out differences. On a fundamental difference like Iraq policy I think we need to sharpen the differences,” said Richardson. “I’ve been trying to point this out for some time and hopefully this will get some attention.”

Richardson said he wants U.S. troops out by the end of 2007. He said he believes that leaving any U.S. troops in Iraq, even to train Iraqi troops, will only make them targets.

“There is not a single sign that Iraq is improving. To the contrary, every indication is that it’s getting worse and a smaller force will do nothing to change that,” said Richardson.

He said he would “leverage” the departure of U.S. troops to force the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions to come to a political settlement and have an all-Muslim force from Turkey, Jordan and possibly Syria and Iran keep the peace.

Clinton told the AFSCME conference that she would begin withdrawing troops immediately, but that some troops might have to remain to prevent Iraq from becoming a staging ground for al Qaeda, to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq, to guard against Iranian influence and possibly as trainers.

Edwards said he would immediately draw down 40,000 to 50,000 of the 150,000 American troops now in Iraq and continue to withdraw combat troops over the next 10 months.

Obama said the best option is to “begin a phased redeployment, that we’re as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.”