Congress raked Mr. Richardson over the coals for repeated security lapses, nuclear secrets leaking to China, and identifying an innocent scientist to the press as the spy.
"I don't apologize for anything I did. I made some mistakes. That's part of my record and everyone's going to have to judge it," Mr. Richardson says.
The scandal took him out of consideration to be Al Gore's running mate in 2000, so Mr. Richardson turned back to the place that gave him his political start. In 2002, 55 percent of New Mexicans voted him into the governor's mansion. He was re-elected four years later by an even greater margin, 69 percent.
After two years in office, Mr. Richardson wore out his honeymoon. When he bought a new state airplane for $5.5 million, Republicans jumped all over him, airing a radio ad with a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" theme. The effort mocked the governor's high-priced plane ("It's for state business," he responds), his penchant for speeding ("There's so much we need to do"), and hiring an executive chef ("The governor hosts world leaders," a spokesman says).
Still, Mr. Richardson's re-elected margin included 40 percent of the Republican vote. His most loyal allies have been the business community.
"Some days I have left meetings with him scratching my head thinking, 'I've just left with a meeting with one of the top Republican advocates of the state,'" says Terri Cole, president of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
But Mr. Richardson's cozy relationship with business has hurt him with labor. "I grimace each time I see 'moderate.' I want him to not take labor for granted," says Christina Trujillo, president of the state teachers union, the state's largest labor organization.
"You can do both," Mr. Richardson says. "You can be pro business, pro tax cuts, pro growth, pro jobs and pro labor."
Looking at the presidential primary field, it's hard to find a Democrat to the right of Bill Richardson. Observers say for a primary, he'll need to adjust that image.
"It's a little more difficult for moderate Democrats. It's tough," says Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-California). "The voters who come out are very energized by the war. They're so angry."
Mr. Richardson initially supported the Iraq war in 2003. "If he knew then what he knows now, he would have not supported the war," says campaign manager David Contarino.
But in the end, Mr. Richardson's independent streak is exactly what may help him look electable. Republican political consultant Whitney Cheshire said labeling Richardson a "moderate" is the campaign's way of covering the governor's inconsistencies. "He's totally running to the right," she says. "It's all Republican buzz words."
Mr. Richardson's oft-repeated line that he's a "tax-cutting governor" is true, but some of his most touted tax cuts increased other taxes. By getting rid of the state's tax on grocery food items, he simply raised taxes on non-food items, like toothpaste and paper towels. And while he trimmed some state jobs, he quietly doubled the size of his own staff, and added so many cabinet positions he enlarged the state marble cabinet table.
While some say he'd make a top-notch secretary of state or even vice-president, Mr. Richardson is running for neither.
"He's running for the job he's most qualified for," Mr. Contarino says. "He's running to win. The best thing in all those [primary] states the governor has going for him is the personal touch."
But Mr. Richardson has something else going for him – a first ever, early western caucus. The Nevada caucuses will be Jan. 19, 2008, sandwiched between the Iowa and New Hampshire. Mr. Richardson's the only Westerner in the Democratic field.
"That's his shot," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "There are certain 'must-do's' for each candidate. One of Richardson's is doing well in Nevada. I don't see how he stays in without that."
But it will be expensive, and Mr. Richardson's record-setting fundraising in small-state New Mexico ($13.6 million for his 2006 gubernatorial re-election) pales in comparison to New Yorker Hillary Clinton's cash-raising power ($39.6 million for her 2006 Senate re-election).
"The only chance he has is if people start looking for something else." Ms. Sanchez says.
Richardson's challenge is to simply stay in the presidential race long enough to be in contention when those changes take place. Campaign money will always follow the momentum, so the test becomes candidate stamina, and Richardson has proven he has nothing but energy, which is why he holds the world record for hands shaken in a single day with 13,392. He'll need to shake more than 100-times that many to win over the Democrats in the critical first four states of the 2008 nomination campaign.
Neil Simon covered New Mexico politics for five years and produced the documentary film "Inside Bill Richardson." He lives in Washington, D.C. and can be found online at www.neilhsimon.com.
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