Richardson stumps in Nevada

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

MINDEN, Nev. — This is where it starts for presidential candidate Bill Richardson: a dim, red velour ballroom in the basement of the Carson Valley Inn Casino, with a plywood gray donkey and a pile of yellow “Nevada for Richardson” buttons.

Minden, with a population of about 3,000, isn’t Washington, D.C. It’s not even Des Moines, Iowa.

But this small town and others like it across this small state are critical if Richardson’s bid for president is to get beyond the starting gate.

Richardson concedes that he must exceed expectations here in Nevada’s Jan. 19, 2008, caucus if he wants a shot at winning the rest of the country. It’s the second stop on the Democratic Party’s roll call of primaries, sandwiched between Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

“I have to do extremely well. I have to do more than respectably. I’m not sure I can carry Nevada, but I’m going to try,” he told a bevy of reporters, mostly from local newspapers, on Saturday.

His effort will center on small towns like Minden, built up against the Sierra Nevadas near Lake Tahoe.

While Sen. Hillary Clinton was in Iowa over the weekend, Richardson was here – less than a week after announcing his bid for the White House – talking to a crowd smaller than he could easily draw on any day back home at the Capitol in Santa Fe.

The sometimes impatient, crowd-loving governor with the world’s handshaking record didn’t seem to mind.

“I wanted to emphasize northern Nevada,” he said when asked why he came to this Republican stronghold.

“Like in New Mexico, Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Las Cruces are not the only centers of gravity. Rural areas, rural parts of Nevada, Reno, Carson City, Minden, Washoe – did I say it right? – is important.”

Richardson has conceded he won’t have as much money as rivals such as Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama or former Sen. John Edwards, so his strategy will be to try to connect with people in places big and small, wherever, whenever.

As sure as he’ll journey to other early-primary states, he’ll be back in Nevada – in Carson City for a debate in February and in Las Vegas for a debate in March. Richardson said he can’t afford to write any area off.

“Only 15 percent of America lives in rural areas,” he said before speaking to about 250 Democrats at the annual Douglas County Democrats Turn Nevada Blue dinner Saturday night. “And as a candidate, I’m going to pay attention to rural areas. I know this is Republican territory, but in a primary, I’m going to campaign everywhere.”

Before he and retired Gen. Wesley Clark – another potential candidate – spoke at the dinner, they held mini news conferences in the Chapel at the Inn, a wedding room right across from the ballroom.

“My main message in running for president is that I’m a governor who has managed the state successfully, a Westerner,” Richardson said. “I’m the candidate with, I believe, the most foreign policy experience, as ambassador to the United Nations, as secretary of energy, with energy being one of the most critical areas,” he said.

“I know how to reduce energy dependence. I’ve done it. I’ve done it as governor. New Mexico is the clean energy state, ahead of California.”

“Please print that,” he told a reporter from Las Vegas Review-Journal, and laughed.

As much as he’s looking for news coverage, he’s looking for voters. He connected with several by way of his 50-minute speech, which touched on everything from the war in Iraq to foreign policy, water and renewable energy.

Shirley Fraser had heard of Richardson before, and started checking him out on the Internet after he announced for president a week ago.

She found herself at the Carson Inn on Saturday night, wanting to hear him in person.

“I loved it. I really loved it,” she said. More than anything, Richardson’s diplomatic and negotiating skills appeal to her.

Place Fraser, a restaurant bookkeeper, in Richardson’s column.

“Hillary is very famous, but Richardson has more experience,” she said.

Jeff Elpern, a high-tech business owner in Reno, said he’s looking for a presidential candidate with courage.

“I’m looking for someone with a spine,” he said. “Someone who’s not too timid.”

Richardson might be that man.

But he’s got to let the world know.

“I think he’s an interesting candidate,” Elpern said, noting how early it is in the race. “But he doesn’t have the high-powered candidacy like Obama and Hillary.”

He doesn’t. And in fact, some in Minden hadn’t ever heard of Richardson.

“Is he a Republican?” said Jennine Cunningham, a stylist at Hair Cottage, about 10 blocks from where Richardson spoke.

He’s not. But he can sometimes sound a little like one, emphasizing private property and gun-ownership rights and the tax cuts he’s signed as governor.

While he’s popular with some members of the GOP, Richardson, 59, also seemed hip to members of a youth group who signed up to attend a community conversation Sunday with the governor at the Washoe County Democratic Party headquarters in Reno, a stone’s throw from the Reno airport and the last of Richardson’s stops here. About 20 people attended.

“He’s real,” said Greg Bailor, community outreach director for Youth Voice, a nonpartisan group focused on opening dialogues with politicians about issues that affect young people. “He’s a presidential candidate who has gone out of his way to reach out to young voters.”

While those accolades sound good, Richardson will need more.

Nevada for now is about is about turning up the volume on his candidacy and checking how it sounds, said John Garcia, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

“It’s a way to check what your neighbors think of you before you test yourself out there further afield,” Garcia said.

It’s also about the West, where Democrats now claim five of the seven governors’ seats.

But the Silver State is also about laying the foundation for his campaign in the rest of the country.

“What he does in Nevada, he’s got to do better in the states after that,” Garcia said.

Published Jan. 29, 2007.