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Bill Richardson is a man pursued

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is being aggressively courted by the remaining Democratic candidates and their supporters.
Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former President Bill Clinton watch the Super Bowl at the Governor's Mansion in Santa Fe, N.M., on Sunday, Feb. 3.Rebecca Craig / The Santa Fe New Mexican file
/ Source: The New York Times

Lots of people are calling Gov. these days, “just to check in.”

calls every three days or so. He called on Friday of last week, but Mr. Richardson was tied up with the Legislature, so he tried again on Monday and left a message on voice mail (“following up from Friday”) before finally connecting with his defeated presidential rival late Tuesday, and then again two days later.

Mr. Richardson took a half-hour call from on Tuesday and received about 10 others — a typical day — from people calling “on behalf of Hillary”: former cabinet secretaries, mutual friends, elected officials. “Heavyweight types,” Mr. Richardson calls them.

“Barack is very precise,” the governor observed, sitting in his office at the New Mexico Capitol. The Obama campaign rarely pesters him with surrogates. Mr. Obama’s approach is like “a surgical bomb,” he said, while “the Clintons are more like a carpet bomb.”

Mr. Richardson quit the presidential race on Jan. 10 and has since gone from courting voters at the grass roots to being courted himself at the highest levels. He is “genuinely torn” about any endorsement, he said, adding that he might offer one next week or perhaps not at all.

He is one of the biggest prospective endorsers in the : former candidate, prominent Hispanic governor, influential superdelegate and generally beloved teddy bear among party insiders, if not by the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which dealt him distant fourth-place finishes in their early nominating contests.

Mr. Richardson’s transition from supplicant to benefactor provides a glimpse into a rarefied theater of political persuasion. Within hours of his exit from the race, he received calls from Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and . Mr. Clinton, who as president made him ambassador and then energy secretary, called him even before his withdrawal was announced. All of them wished Mr. Richardson the best and told him he had run a great race and, oh, by the way, “we need you.”

And they promised to be in touch.

“I want to make it clear that I’m not annoyed by any of this,” Mr. Richardson said of the repeated overtures.

Actually there was one voice-mail message that chafed. It came from a well-known Clinton loyalist, whom Mr. Richardson will not identify except by sex.

“She really ticked me off,” he said. Her tone and words suggested that he owed Mrs. Clinton his endorsement. Mr. Richardson complained to Mr. Clinton during their phone conversation on Tuesday, and the former president assured him that the woman was not speaking for the Clinton campaign.

Since ending his own run for the White House, Mr. Richardson has entered what he calls “a period of decompression.” He has grown a beard, ridden his beloved horse, Sundance, and started going to art museums around New Mexico again and to boxing matches in Las Vegas. He is sleeping about seven hours a night, up from four on the campaign trail, yet somehow looks more tired, as if the accumulated wear of the last year has taken residence in his eyes.

He said he missed running for president “a great deal,” but he is trying to get on with the business of New Mexico. Yes, he admits thinking about being someone’s running mate, or maybe secretary of state.

“I can’t preclude it,” the 60-year-old governor said. “But I’m not pining for it, and if it doesn’t happen, I’ve had a great life. I’m at peace with myself.”

In their courtship of Mr. Richardson, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are skilled and nonpressuring, their efforts appropriate, he said. They make no implicit suggestions of future jobs or favors. Sometimes they talk issues, usually a bit about the state of the race.

“I’m in San Antone,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Richardson when he called Tuesday, the governor recalled. The conversation quickly moved, as it usually does these days, to the importance of Hispanic voters in the Texas primary on March 4.

“You’d be a big help to us in Texas,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Richardson when he called once more on Thursday, from Austin.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama typically keep Mr. Richardson on the phone about 5 to 10 minutes, rarely longer, in calls usually made between their campaign events.

“Barack’s a little looser” in his conversations, Mr. Richardson said. The two men developed a back-of-the-classroom rapport during the , exchanging winks or eye rolls when one of the other candidates “would get outrageous or something,” Mr. Richardson said.

In a call last week, Mr. Richardson feigned shock to Mr. Obama that he had prevailed in the District of Columbia primary, a teasing reference to Washington’s heavily black population. The two men shared a giggle, and then it was down to business.

“Come on, Bill, we’ll make history, man,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Richardson, the governor said. “Me, you and Teddy” (as in Kennedy, an ardent Obama supporter and big-time hero to Mr. Richardson).

“Hillary I’ve known longer,” Mr. Richardson said in the interview. “We have a lot of history. I like her.” They have literally hundreds of mutual friends they may chitchat about. They reminisce. She asks him about his wife, Barbara.

But it is clear that Mr. Richardson is more of a Bill Clinton guy. They share many interests, are both barreling, space-absorbing personalities and full-blooded political animals. (Mr. Richardson holds a Guinness World Record for shaking 13,392 hands in an eight-hour period at the 2002 New Mexico State Fair.)

Early this month, Mr. Clinton called Mr. Richardson and insisted on seeing him face to face. Mr. Richardson said he could not make it unless Mr. Clinton came down to New Mexico to watch the on television with him, which Mr. Clinton rearranged his schedule to do. Mr. Obama heard about that and promptly called Mr. Richardson.

“You know, I’d be good company, too,” Mr. Obama told him, Mr. Richardson reported.

The Bills watched the game in the Governor’s Mansion, Mr. Richardson rooting for New England, Mr. Clinton for New York. They smoked cigars, drank wine, devoured barbecued spareribs, chicken wings and shrimp. They talked politics only at halftime.

When New York won, Mr. Clinton declared that this would be “good for Hillary,” and called her. But she wanted to talk to the other Bill.

“So did you guys leave any food?” she asked, before reminding Mr. Richardson that she needed him.

“I feel a great deal of personal loyalty to the Clintons,” Mr. Richardson said several times in the interview, his face betraying the agony of indecision as much as fondness. He went on to describe Mr. Obama as “remarkable,” “someone I like very much” and a leader “who is creating something that’s really good in this country.”

Mr. Richardson, seeming entirely genuine, repeated that he was “genuinely torn.” He did, however, vote on Feb. 5 in the New Mexico caucus, eventually won by Mrs. Clinton after more than a week of counting. He will not say how he cast his vote, allowing only that it was not for himself.