Sunday, February 25, 2007

"Richardson Looks to Use Hispanic Roots"

WESTON, Fla.--For the Broward County, Fla., Democratic chairman, Bill Richardson's presidential campaign has meaning far beyond how well the New Mexico governor fares against better known 2008 rivals.

Richardson represents two important growth targets for the party, said Mitch Ceasar: He is Hispanic and from a Western state once considered solidly Republican.
"The challenge will be for him to show not just that he's the Hispanic candidate, but that he can mobilize that base," Ceasar said. "His ability to do that will be measured and considered by all candidates in the future."

Before a speech Saturday night at a Broward Democrats' dinner, Richardson said in an interview with The Associated Press that his Hispanic heritage will be a key asset as he attempts to distinguish himself from other candidates.

"It will provide, hopefully, a base of support. Hispanic votes are very important in the early primary states, like Nevada," Richardson said. "Naturally, I am campaigning hard to get Hispanic support. But I am not running as the Hispanic candidate. I am running as a mainstream American candidate who happens to be Hispanic."

Joe Garcia, executive vice president of the nonprofit NDN Network, formerly known as the New Democratic Network, said Richardson is "what the new Democratic Party will look like" as it works to attract Hispanics and make inroads in the West.

"I think he offers tremendous opportunity for the growth of the party in areas where the party needs to grow," the Miami activist said.

Richardson's father was an international banker from Boston and his mother was Mexican. Richardson settled in New Mexico after several years as a Washington staffer, partly because of the state's large Hispanic population.

His main problem in the 2008 campaign is that he trails the top-tier candidates - New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards - in name recognition and fundraising. Richardson does have a strong resume that includes stints as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, energy secretary, congressman and twice-elected New Mexico governor.

In the AP interview, Richardson said this broad experience is unmatched by any of his rivals and said his campaign is based on selling that resume to voters.

"When the American people see my record and my experience, they will know I'm not just a candidate who talks the talk, I've walked the walk. I've done things this country needs," Richardson said. "I may not have the most resources or the rock-star status, but I think this should be an election about competence and vision for the country."

In his speech to about 700 Broward Democrats, Richardson called for U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2007 and said he is uniquely qualified to help broker a workable power-sharing arrangement among the competing factions in Iraq.

"The next president must be able to repair the damage that's been done to our national reputation," Richardson said. "It is time for our troops to leave with honor."

Richardson also said he supported efforts in Florida to move its 2008 presidential primary forward on the calendar, possibly to Feb. 5, in part because of the state's large Hispanic population.

"I hope it happens. If it happens, you're going to see a lot more of me," he said.

Florida's Hispanic population differs politically from most of the rest of the country because of its dominance by Cubans. They overwhelmingly are Republican, largely because of perceptions that the GOP is more staunchly against Fidel Castro.

It did not help Democrats when President Clinton's administration decided in 2000 to send Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba after the boy was rescued floating on an inner tube and his Miami-based relatives and supporters fought to keep him in the United States.

Garcia, however, said many younger Cubans are more open to supporting Democrats, who do well among other major Hispanic groups, such as Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.

"To have a candidate who is a Hispanic, if nothing else it shows that Democrats are inclusive and that's a message the party wants to send," said Aubrey Jewett, political science professor at the University of Central Florida. "It keeps him in the game. I don't think it's enough to put him over the top."

Also Saturday, Richardson urged the Bush administration to negotiate directly with Iran over its nuclear program.

"Saber-rattling is not a good way to get the Iranians to cooperate," Richardson wrote in The Washington Post. "But it is a good way to start a new war."

A better approach, he said, "would be for the United States to engage directly with the Iranians and to lead a global diplomatic offensive to prevent them from building nuclear weapons."

Richardson, who has visited North Korea several times for talks, both in an official and unofficial capacity, said the recent tentative agreement with the communist government over its nuclear program illustrates that "diplomacy can work even with the most unsavory of regimes."

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