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Run, Bill, run!

Only in the Democratic Party can a presidential candidate who has run a state, cut taxes, led a Cabinet department, served in Congress and engaged in diplomacy around the world be considered “second-tier.”

How can it be that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is not hyped in the same breathless discussions as potential “firsts” Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?

Perhaps it’s because Richardson, while proud of his Hispanic heritage, isn’t running a campaign to be the first Hispanic president. But more specifically, it’s because he doesn’t enjoy the media-spurred star power of a freshman U.S. senator or the hyper public awareness of all things Clinton.

Richardson is trying to do something more difficult than break a racial barrier: He’s trying to get noticed in a field of candidates that’s sprinting to the left.

He doesn’t equivocate on Iraq because he has no past votes on it to haunt him. He doesn’t have to apologize, or more specifically, not apologize. He raises millions of dollars, not tens of millions. And while his fundraising would have made him top-tier at this juncture four years ago, this year he is as politically penniless as he is resume rich.

Yet what makes the former energy secretary and United Nations ambassador so refreshing is his attitude. In his public appearances, he quips about telling his 91-year-old mother he’s running for president. “President of what?” she asks.

In an hour-plus meeting with the Review-Journal editorial board Monday, Richardson was equally self-effacing, conversational and funny. While portraying himself as a fiscal conservative (he has cut taxes in New Mexico), he sought to differentiate his universal health care plan with the one pushed by former Sen. John Edwards.

“I don’t believe that you need to tax every time for a solution,” he said. “I had a big debate with Senator Edwards, among the second-tier candidates.” Smiling, he added, “I’m second-tier now, but I’m moving up. I’m like at the top of the second tier.”

While the “top-tier” candidates play a cat-and-mouse game about which debates they won’t attend, Richardson is carrying his party’s message into traditionally unfriendly territory. It’s no accident that Democrats now control the governor’s mansions in 28 states, creating a nice little blue swath through four traditionally red Western states from Montana south to New Mexico. Richardson ran the Democratic Governor’s Association in the past cycle, when his party picked up six governorships.

So while he is actively courting Hispanic voters and would love Jan. 19 to be the first time the Hispanic vote makes a real difference for a Nevada candidate — that’s when the state holds its second-in-the-nation presidential caucus — Richardson is also heading into conservative territory.

He was the first presidential candidate to accept an invitation to meet with the Review-Journal’s editorial board.

He began with a different kind of bio than the impressive political one discussed nationally. The first thing out of his mouth? “I’m for the Second Amendment.” He elaborated, detailing his A-rating from the National Rifle Association and the recent suggestion by MSNBC debate moderator Brian Williams that Richardson was the NRA’s favored candidate of either party.

“It’s an issue, obviously that isn’t doing me much good in New York and with the cognoscenti,” he said. “Is that a pretty good word?”

From guns he talked about cutting taxes. He’s cut personal income taxes and capital gains taxes in New Mexico. Targeted tax credits for aviation and the film industry have boosted the state’s economy.

Richardson had a simple joke about whether younger Americans will be able to collect benefits from Social Security and Medicare: “You’re screwed.” He then trotted out the tried-and-true response: no privatization, no stealing from the trust fund and let smart people figure out a bipartisan solution.

Richardson talked about his diplomatic trips, including one last fall to Sudan in which he got Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek out of prison. He trotted it out as a bona fide. Here’s a politician who helped a journalist from the Chicago Tribune. Then he thought about his audience and asked, “You don’t like the Trib?”

It’s easy to see how he might sit down with Iranian clerics to negotiate on nukes or Iraq. His plan to immediately pull all troops from Iraq and reposition them in places such as Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia may be disastrous.

He’s not sure. Richardson thinks his plan will work because he trusts the power of political negotiations, backed up with the might of the U.S. military when needed. This is how Richardson has had diplomatic success with the so-called Axis of Evil. He has gotten concessions already from North Korea after numerous trips to Pyongyang. He’s pried prisoners away from Fidel Castro and American soldiers from Saddam Hussein.

How tough can Republicans be?

A lot easier, it would seem, than Democratic voters.

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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