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Kerry running mate: the Hispanic factor

Geraldine Ferraro, Joe Lieberman and now - maybe - Bill Richardson. Bill who? Richardson, the governor of New Mexico. You know, the state next door with the pretty yellow license plates. Granted,
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Geraldine Ferraro, Joe Lieberman and now - maybe - Bill Richardson.

Bill who?

Richardson, the governor of New Mexico. You know, the state next door with the pretty yellow license plates.

Granted, presiding over a state with fewer people than metro Phoenix isn't a very prominent platform. But Ferraro and Lieberman weren't exactly household names either - until, that is, they campaigned their way into the book of political superlatives.

In 1984, Ferraro became the first woman to run for vice president. Lieberman became the first Jew when he set his sights on the same job in 2000. This year could be Richardson's turn. The 56-year-old governor could be the first Hispanic in contention to sit a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

Whether Richardson gets the nod, of course, is entirely up to Sen. John Kerry. The presumptive Democratic nominee is now engaged in what the online magazine Slate on Friday called "one of Washington's most elaborate Kabuki rituals: the hunt for a running mate." A choice is expected before the July nominating convention.

A national organization predicts a record number of Hispanics will vote in this year's presidential election.

If it is Richardson, the choice is certain to resonate in Hispanic-heavy states such as Arizona - and not just among voters who already favor Kerry over President Bush.

"Just because you're a Republican doesn't mean you don't support your own people," said Lillian Lopez-Grant, a Tucson neighborhood activist who once ran Sen. John McCain's Southern Arizona office.

Lopez-Grant has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since at least 1980. This year, if Richardson is in the running, could be different. "I personally would welcome him," she said.

Arizona Democrats, needless to say, are delighted at the prospect of a Richardson candidacy.

"Having the first Hispanic and the first person of color on the ticket, yeah, I think you'd get that kind of loyalty and surge that those other campaigns got," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Tucson. "Historically, that counts for something."

While Richardson has repeatedly denied any interest in the vice presidency, he seems to own a permanent place on Kerry's not-so-short short list.

"He's smart. He's articulate. He's got all the credentials," Grijalva said.

Richardson's résumé appears tailor-made for high office: 15 years as a congressman, stints as ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of energy, and now governor. John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt's first vice president, famously described the vice presidency as not being worth "a pitcher of warm spit." If true, Richardson might be overqualified.

Richardson's career, however, has not been entirely bump-free. At the United Nations, Richardson's office offered Monica Lewinsky a job as a junior assistant when the White House was trying to relocate the infamous intern. Far more serious was the disappearance of nuclear secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory when Richardson was at the helm of the Energy Department. The security lapse removed him from consideration as a vice presidential candidate in 2000.

Grijalva believes the pluses to a possible Richardson candidacy outweigh the minuses, though he is concerned the episode could cloud the campaign.

"Some of the things that occurred at the Energy Department while he was overseeing it - is that something we're going to be dealing with on a constant basis?" he said.

The congressman's top picks for vice president are Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Kerry's primary rivals.

Like Edwards, Richardson has an energetic personality that would be a definite asset on the campaign trail. He is regularly described as a natural and tireless politician in the mold of his former boss, Bill Clinton.

The affable glad-handing was on display earlier this month at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. Attending the annual meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council, Richardson didn't miss an opportunity to shake a hand, sign an autograph, pose for a picture or engage in familiar banter.

"Hey, how are you?" a wide-eyed Richardson asked former Tucson Mayor George Miller as he worked his way across a crowded ballroom. If Richardson didn't recognize Miller, he certainly didn't show it.

"We wanted to invite you to our Cinco de Mayo celebration this year," Miller told him.

"You should have," Richardson responded, sounding miffed that he missed the party. "Next time."

Hardly a surprise that an inveterate flesh-presser like Richardson has a place in perhaps the most famous book of superlatives, the Guinness Book of World Records. Running for governor two years ago Richardson shook 13,392 hands in an eight-hour period.

Richardson, who will serve as chairman of the July convention, possesses an "essentially sensual" connection to politics, The New York Times Magazine wrote in a recent profile. He's a schmoozer who, even after a grueling 16-hour day, still ripples "with the energy of a fire hose." In addition to shrewd political instincts, the Times wrote, he has a penchant for saying what he thinks. He "is the Democratic answer to John McCain."

But all this is icing. If Richardson is indeed a serious contender for VP, a top reason is his ability to appeal directly - and in Spanish - to the country's largest and fastest-growing minority group.

"He will drive up turnout in the Hispanic community - no question about it," said Paul Eckerstrom, chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party. "For that admittedly selfish reason alone, he's my No. 1 pick."

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials last week predicted a record 6.9 million Hispanics will vote this year, about a million more than four years ago.

Will Richardson's appeal transcend party lines? Maybe, said former state lawmaker Mike Morales, a self-described loyal Republican.

"It could have an impact. But it would not matter to me who the vice presidential candidate is. You look at the top of the ticket," he said.

Pollsters are divided about Richardson's impact on the race. Earl de Berge of the independent Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center isn't sure if putting a relatively unknown governor from a small state on the ticket would "move the needle" for Kerry.

"He probably has no name ID in Arizona," de Berge said.

That could change once Richardson hits the hustings, de Berge said, but then a larger question looms about his appeal to the non-Hispanic electorate. "How will he play in Vermont?" de Berge asked.

Margaret Kenski, a Tucson pollster who has worked on numerous Republican campaigns, agreed that Richardson is not widely known. But she said a Kerry-Richardson team could enhance the team's appeal in the Southwest.

New Mexico, which Al Gore won in 2000 by a mere 366 votes, would be a "slam dunk" for the Democrats this year, she said. Arizona isn't so certain, but the Hispanic factor would likely be key. Kenski noted that Hispanics played a crucial role in Arizona in 1996, when Clinton became the first Democrat to carry the state since Harry Truman in 1948.

"Typically, Hispanics are about 65 percent Democratic anyway," she said. "Putting Richardson on the ticket will help them maintain that way."

This year Hispanics are expected to account for 6.1 percent of the total vote, up from 5.4 percent in 2000. That many of those voters will find themselves drawn to a fellow Hispanic comes as no surprise to Larry Gonzalez, Washington, D.C., office director of the Latino Elected and Appointed Officials group.

"It would have a huge energizing effect in the Latino community," he said. "It may help solidify a base for Democrats that, quite frankly, has been chipped away at by Republicans."

And Republicans will continue to do so, said Danny Diaz, spokesman for the Bush re-election campaign.

"The president has put forward an agenda that speaks to a majority of Americans, including Hispanics," said Diaz, noting that Bush earned about 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000.

Diaz declined to comment on a "hypothetical" Richardson candidacy. Jaime Molera, a former Arizona superintendent of public instruction, wasn't so reluctant. The Phoenix Republican called the Richardson "trial balloon" an obvious attempt by Kerry to bolster his credentials with Hispanic voters.

"The interest in Richardson shows the Democrats understand that the president is making inroads with the Hispanic community," said Molera, now a political consultant and chairman of Bush's re-election campaign in Maricopa County. "I mean, let's face it. Kerry has been taking criticism from national Hispanic leaders for not doing enough outreach, for not having enough Hispanics involved in the top levels of his campaign. It's great for him to come out and say, 'Look, see I have a Hispanic on my short list.' "

Molera recalled that Walter Mondale's choice of Ferraro sparked speculation that women would vote "in droves" for the Democratic ticket. It didn't happen. "There was that bump for a while, but then women decided that wasn't what they wanted," he said.

More importantly, Molera added, neither Ferraro nor Lieberman ever got to be vice president.

Other possibilities

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana

Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida

Sen. Dick Durban of Illinois

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York

Sen Evan Bayh of Indiana

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California

Sen. John McCain of Arizona

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia

Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire

Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa

Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania

Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas

Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska

Former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia

Former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia

Former Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire

Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin