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A Richardson Comeback?

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with Gov. Bill Richardson's campaign pollster, veteran Democratic strategist Paul Maslin, about his candidate's background and ideas--and whether anyone ever really rules out running for vice president. You're the Richardson campaign pollster. Is there any evidence that his message of getting all the troops out of Iraq right now is gaining traction, compared to the rest of the field?

Paul Maslin: Well, to be perfectly honest, we have not polled recently. I will say this: I do think that once the debated shifted away from "what should we do right this second?" to "what would actually happen if any of you people became president?" you had the spectacle of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama standing up there and saying they cannot pledge that they're going to remove the troops by four years after they would have been elected president.

We believe now that we have a pretty propitious situation that is going to lead to increased support for Governor Richardson's position. And I think that Democratic Primary voters are going to be increasingly baffled by the unwillingness of the two front runners to talk about pulling troops out of Iraq. But what about the criticism that it is a nice soundbite to say, "All the troops out now," but who's going to guard the embassy? Are you going to undertake any counterterrorism missions? And who's going to train Iraqi troops?

Paul Maslin: Well, his belief, as he's clearly stated is: Number one, you have to end the war. And the impediment to ending the war, to stopping all the conflict, to stopping a lot of the mess in Iraq between the various parties, is the presence of the American troops.

And we'd be much better served if we want to use them for counterterror purposes, we can stage them outside of Iraq, in the region. And no one's talking about not protecting embassy people. He has said that that is a red herring, put up by people representing other candidates and their campaigns.

Their candidates are essentially committing the American people to several years and thousands of troops, and unfortunately ongoing casualties, for years and years and years. So Governor Richardson believes, contrary to what a number of generals have said, that you can get more than a brigade to a brigade and a half out every month?

Paul Maslin: I'm not a military expert. But if you got them in fast, you can get them out fast. I think there are a whole lot of people saying things for various self-interested reasons. And I can't believe that if there's a will, there won't be a way to have them out of there.

And he said he'll have them out of there within his first year in office. And I don't know how much more clear you can get. If we really want those troops out, we can get 'em out. Is there any risk that the governor is too conservative on gun rights or gay rights to run in a Democratic primary this year?

Paul Maslin: No. Governor Richardson is the one candidate who clearly has made progress from the beginning of the year until now. He's done it in both Iowa and New Hampshire, where the campaign, obviously, has been most intense.

People are responding to him. They like the fact that here's a guy that actually has a record and has done things. And some of the very issues that people care about most--from global warming, to human rights, to education, to jobs, health care--he's got a track record of actually performing.

Unlike other people in this race who are, you know, essentially just the same, you know, "I've never really done it before, but I believe in it. So trust me."

And the fact that he has more diplomatic and foreign policy experience, as UN ambassador, and as a special envoy, and as someone who's negotiated with foreign dictators, all those things are tremendous for his credibility. Governor Richardson is currently failing to win the Latino vote. Which would seem to be his natural base as the only Latino candidate--

Paul Maslin: That'll change the day after Iowa. I think there's still some lack of knowledge that he is Latino. He does not have, obviously, a Hispanic sounding name. I think as he gains in prominence, particularly if he breaks out of Iowa as one of the two or three candidates who have momentum and have a real chance at the nomination, I think our support in the Latino community will grow dramatically. Does he have to finish in the top three in Iowa to keep going?

Paul Maslin: Well, depends on what you mean by "keep going." We don't make any illusions about the fact that we're going to have to do very well in Iowa. And we're going to have to beat one of the people -- at least one of the people ahead of us right now in the polls. So if that means top three, then it's top three. Do you think that Hillary Clinton, if she's the nominee, would have a problem winning in states in the West -- like New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona -- in which Democrats have recently improved?

Paul Maslin: Well no, I wouldn't get specific about that. I think that the fact is, Bill Richardson would be the best candidate in the West. The Mountain West is one of the prime, if not the prime, pickup regions for Democrats across the country.

We are gaining in support in the states that you just mentioned. We have a realistic chance now to win. More than just one or two of them is possible. In the right circumstances, you could sweep the Mountain West states, from Nevada to Colorado, to New Mexico and Arizona.

That would be a tremendous electoral college boon for the Democratic Party, and another way to get the 270 electoral votes. And there's no question in my mind that Bill Richardson would be, by far, the best candidate for us to put up as the nominee in order to win those states. One unaffiliated Democratic strategist told me that Governor Richardson might be better on paper than he is performing. If he performed a little better in the debate, if he didn't have so many gaffes, he'd be a top-tier candidate.

Paul Maslin: We are a top-tier candidate in the places where the voters are paying attention. I love all this Washington insider, New York insider, kind of analysis. And you're always wrong. And the fact is, that in Iowa, the last three times that we have had multi-candidate fields in Iowa, both the winner and the second place finisher were mired somewhere in third or fourth or worse position, way behind, even later than we're speaking right now.

You know, we've gotten up to double digits in nearly every recent Iowa poll. We've been in double digits in New Hampshire. We're relatively close or even ahead of John Edwards in New Hampshire. I've seen several polls among likeliest caucus voters that indicate that Bill Richardson is not very far behind Barack Obama in Iowa.

I think this is all hoo-ha from a bunch of armchair folks who think they are the ones deciding the race when, in fact, the great thing about this system, is that all the middle men and the so-called experts, and all the stupid network television and cable television commentators mean nothing. The voters of Iowa and New Hampshire will end up giving these people a good fair shake. And we've got a real good chance there. Do you see Obama as the likeliest person he'll overtake to break into the top three in Iowa?

Paul Maslin: Oh, it could go either way. I think Hillary Clinton is probably the likeliest one to stay in the top three, or even the top two. But I don't think you can make that judgment yet.

I saw, firsthand, and I was Paul Simon's pollster in 1988, when Dick Gephardt was ruled out, came from way behind in the last five weeks of that race. I think it's way too soon to suggest exactly how the process will work in Iowa. And Obama and Edwards certainly don't have any name ID problems. What do you think has held both of them back, if they're being held back?

Paul Maslin: Well, I'm not going to start critiquing other people's campaigns right now. They're trying to make the best judgments that they can. I'll simply say that I think the Clinton campaign has done a fairly good job so far of maximizing their candidate's strengths while minimizing the weaknesses.

This thing could break any which way. And all the people who are anointing Hillary Clinton as the nominee, remember, there's a chance she could finish third place in Iowa. And that would be a tremendously stunning development. Is Governor Richardson being Shermanesque about not running for the open Senate seat in New Mexico?

Paul Maslin: Absolutely, 100 percent, totally. He likes his current job. He'd like to take the next step to the job in the White House. And there's no consideration whatsoever being given to anything else. Has he been equally Shermanesque about being on the ticket for vice president?

Paul Maslin: Well, you know, I don't think anybody is ever equally Shermanesque about that. I mean, let's just be honest here. And other than that he's saying, "I'm running for one job. I think I'm very qualified for it. I think I can lead the country. I think I stack up well against these opponents. Please give me a good shake." And he's done well and we have a chance. And then, let's just leave it at that.

Paul Maslin, a graduate of Harvard College, has advised six Democratic presidential candidates, a dozen U.S. senators, and many governors, mayors, and members of Congress. His clients have included Gov. Howard Dean, Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Paul Simon, Sen. Herb Kohl, and California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides. He has also advised unions, non-profits, and corporations including the American Federation of Teachers, the League of Conservation Voters, the National Education Association, American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, and Levi-Strauss.

By Brian Goldsmith