Gov. Bill Richardson launched his official presidential bid in Los Angeles for good reason: It's a major media center in the largest primary state of all, with some 12 million people of Hispanic descent — most of whom don't know that, despite his WASP name, Richardson's mom was from Mexico and that he spent his formative years in that country.
But the key to Richardson's long-shot White House hopes lies less in that sprawling megalopolis than in the small towns here in southwest Iowa, just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb. To travel with Richardson on a glorious summer-like weekend, criss-crossing the lush green farmlands, is to understand how sometimes a moss-backed cliché like "grass-roots campaigning" can sometimes be literally true. It is also a reminder that the business of running for president — especially if your campaign is not swimming in campaign cash — is no business for the weary.
Last Friday evening, Richardson crossed the Missouri River to speak to the national convention of the Young Democrats of America at the Omaha Marriott. A 17-piece band from Omaha North High School was belting out 12-bar blues but did little to pick up the spirits of the candidate, who was in the throes of a dose of food poisoning. (Richardson is fond of noting that, as a candidate who flies commercial, he has become a strong proponent of a "passenger's bill of rights." His temporary affliction, which he blamed on an unnamed airline, gave powerful credibility to his claim.)
He offered to the Young Democrats his core stump speech, which, as most every candidate does, he would repeat at stop after stop. ("I can recite it in my sleep," one of his aides later boasted, or confessed.) It's an account of what he would do in his first six days in office: Pull all the troops out of Iraq, organize an "all-Muslim peacekeeping force," move toward universal health care, launch a campaign for energy independence, make college more accessible, and reaffirm American values. (Realizing this may sound a bit ambitious, he jokes that he might want to take Day 4 off.) And toward the end, Richardson hit a theme that is likely to be one of his key messages to Democrats: I can win.
"That'd be nice for a change," he says. He never explicitly criticizes Al Gore or John Kerry, but he pointedly notes the differences between himself and candidates past and present.
"I'm a governor," he says. "We elect governors." He's from the interior West, where Democrats need to stop conceding the 41 electoral votes of those eight states. And he's a centrist: pro-gun rights, pro-economic growth, anti-"redistributionist." One reason Gore lost in 2000, he says to me, is that he ran on populism and not the economic record of the Clinton-Gore administration.
The next day, Richardson takes his message to a series of small towns. It is here that the message merges with the strategy. In Red Oak, he spends an hour talking and answering questions with some 40 people gathered in Kate and Lainie's coffee house off the main square. (Judging by the sugary breakfast concoctions on display, Richardson's call for a "healthy breakfast initiative" may not find strong support here.) The questions are direct, gut-level. ("We got a new grandson down in Texas. Like to go see him. Can't afford the gas.")
In Shenandoah, at the Depot Deli and Lounge, where stands a monument honoring hometown boys Don and Phil Everly, he tells more than a hundred gatherers that "I want you to send a message: You're not gonna be swayed by Washington insiders. I'm not a rock star. I don't have a lot of money."
But as he says later on a lawn in Carter Lake, "I'm going to be here for the next eight months — I'm not going to give a speech and leave." It is a strategy right out of the playbook of Jimmy Carter, who made the Iowa caucuses his launching pad in 1976. Shake every hand; hit every town, large and small, and shock the political establishment with a surprise showing. (At every stop, he cited a new poll, showing Richardson at 10 percent in Iowa. "We're moving up!" he proclaimed again and again.)
It's possible to question this strategy. For one thing, given the astonishingly early launch of this campaign — and the coverage — it's almost unimaginable that any candidate can "surprise" the establishment. Front-runner and long shot alike know the power of Iowa, and have for the last few decades. For another, with the big states weighing in a week or two after the caucuses, it's no longer possible to do well in Iowa, then raise the money over a month or so. Florida, New York, California, Illinois and Co. lurk right around the corner, and big money will be needed long before the small contingent of Iowa caucus-goers venture from their homes on a freezing January night.
But for Richardson, whose love of politics and campaigning is visceral and lifelong, it is the only strategy that makes sense. So he is up at dawn, stuffed into the front seat of a van or in the coach seat of a commercial jet, looking to shake every hand in the land.
Don't sell him short. Bill Richardson claims to hold the record for shaking more hands in a single day, more than 13,000 of them, than any other human being.
Only 299,987,000 to go.