Gov. Bill Richardson makes a last hurrah in Iowa before caucuses

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

MUSCATINE, Iowa — Wedged into a breakfast crowd at the River View Restaurant, Gov. Bill Richardson stood and made what might be one of his last pitches to Iowa voters, asking for the help of caucus-goers already in his camp and hoping to be heard by those who weren’t.

“I need to know who here is undecided, because I will go straight to your table,” he told the crowd of about 35 people whose body heat fogged up the windows of the cafe two blocks from the Mississippi River.

With the Iowa caucuses just hours away – they start today at 6:30 p.m. – Richardson needed every possible vote to maintain a viable bid going into the New Hampshire primary Tuesday.

He has said he would be happy with a fourth-place finish, but he has said he will continue campaigning in New Hampshire and beyond, regardless of tonight’s results.

While Richardson for days and weeks has headed straight to those in need of convincing in Iowa’s coffee shops and living rooms, it was U.S. Rep. Tom Udall who sashayed to the table of undecided women in the back of the cafe.

Richardson, clearly running on little more than adrenaline, took a seat to talk with other voters who had hurried in from the 2-degree weather Wednesday.

As caucus night loomed, Udall was helping buttress the governor’s campaign, playing lead in a back-up band for Richardson.

Department of Public Safety Secretary John Denko was there, campaigning for hours on end, as was the first lady, Barbara Richardson. So was former Ambassador Ed Romero.

Count in Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Dorian Dodson and Department of Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught. Chief of Staff James Jimenez? Check.

Ditto for John Early, a Red Cross pilot who, in 1996, Richardson rescued in Sudan. Harold Bailey, executive director of the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs, is also doing literature drops, speeches in churches, whatever it takes.

While Richardson said he feels good, is upbeat and that he will surpass expectations, the toll of a year of campaigning was evident.

The governor, known for his stamina, on Tuesday and Wednesday looked run down and depleted. Hoarseness crept into his voice. He complained at one event about a sore knee and apologized for sitting down.

Still, he was focused on his last opportunities to reach Iowa voters, to reach his longtime dream, really, and spent Wednesday hopscotching the state in a small airplane, hitting seven far-flung cities.

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said he planned to end the day at a 10 p.m. rally in Iowa City. That day came after hitting six cities Tuesday, including several “football watching parties” in small towns like West Burlington, a place with the population of Eunice, N.M., just under 4,000.

In West Burlington he appealed to about 30 people gathered in a basement recreation room to turn out for him today.

“Please caucus for me,” he said, wearing snowproof shoes instead of his trademark cowboy boots. “Give me a chance. I’d be honored to get your support. I’m going vote by vote.”

The appeal no doubt was echoed by the other Democratic candidates who slamdanced across the state. But unlike the top-tier candidates, Richardson needs to do better than expected – finishing in the top three, many pundits say – to keep his presidential bid viable heading into the New Hampshire primary.

The most recent Des Moines Register poll, however, shows he’s a distant fourth, ahead of Sens. Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd.

While polls this week show many Iowa Democrats undecided – even at house parties sponsored by Richardson supporters – the 60-year-old governor has some more-than-enthusiastic supporters in a state that’s more than wild about politics.

Muscatine resident and elementary school teacher Pam Lee let her husband, also a teacher, oversee her first class Wednesday so she could hear Richardson at the cafe for the fifth time since the campaign started.

“That’s how important this is,” she said.

But don’t think Lee has watched only Richardson this campaign season. She also turned out for other candidates, including Republican Mitt Romney, before deciding on Richardson for his stance on the Iraq war and his ideas to improve education in the United States.

“This man has restored my faith in politics,” said Lee, 58, whose son is an Army captain in Iraq.

While Richardson’s events this week attracted both supporters and undecided voters, there is another type of caucus-goer – voters who are firmly for one candidate, but who show up in the morning’s stinging cold to hear what their No. 2 choice has to say.

Retha Monroe, who also turned out at the River View, was one of them – something you might guess from her red felt hat.

Her headwear bore political pins dating back to Jimmy Carter’s presidential run in 1976, Jesse Jackson’s 1988 bid, a “Yo quiero Gore 2000″ button, and a “Richardson for President” sticker.

Still, Richardson is behind Sen. Hillary Clinton in Monroe’s mind.

“I’d like to see him as vice president,” she said.

The governor, for the record, didn’t change Monroe’s vote for Hillary Clinton with his coffee shop talk.

He hasn’t swayed many Iowans, in fact. The Register poll showed Richardson at 6 percent – with about 6 percent also undecided – while Sen. Barack Obama led the Democratic field with 32 percent. Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards had 25 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

Other polls by Reuters and CNN in recent weeks have put Richardson at 7 percent in Iowa.

While Richardson’s support might be small in the surveys, it didn’t seem that way in Des Moines on Wednesday as James Jimenez walked door to door looking for undecided voters in the northeast part of town.

The governor’s chief of staff, who has been stumping for his boss in Iowa for a week, started his rental car with a remote control and headed out Wednesday for the umpteenth time.

He had to rap on several doors along York Street before he found Vietnam veteran Michael Reed at home and answering.

Jimenez, in a wool golfer’s hat and hiking boots, asked Reed, whom the campaign had flagged as undecided, to consider Richardson when he votes.

Ignoring the John Edwards sign on Reed’s porch, Jimenez listened to Reed’s concerns about illegal immigration and veterans’ health care for five minutes, then handed him a brochure.

Reed seemed a hard sell for Jimenez, who didn’t leave with a sure vote.

“We’ll just see how the cards fall,” Reed told him.

Back inside the car and steeled again against the cold, Jimenez told co-campaigner Matt Ruybal he was optimistic.

“I think we got a shot at it,” he said, driving on.

The governor’s door-to-door campaigners will go to any house – with any sign out front – that staffers label as having an undecided voter inside.

“What we’ve found is a lot of people aren’t locked in,” Jimenez said. “Even though they have a sign for one person, the spouse may have a different opinion,” he said, getting back in the car after finding no one home at a house with a Clinton sign.

“What we are hearing and seeing is quite different from what they (the polls) are saying,” he said.

It won’t be long now until Jimenez – and Richardson – will know.

Published Jan. 3, 2008.