Invisi-Bill

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He has a resume that trumps every other candidate in the 2008 Democratic field: Governor, U.N. Ambassador, Congressman, cabinet secretary. He has rescued hostages and negotiated with some of the toughest characters on the planet. So it seemed fair to ask: Why isn’t New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson doing any better in the presidential race? “We’ve become a celebrity culture,” he told me, “not that I’m complaining about that…”

I caught up with Richardson this afternoon, the day after the first Democratic debate in Orangeburg, S.C., and before the candidates were scheduled to appear at a Democratic dinner this evening. Nearly every one of them was stumping across South Carolina in an effort to fan the buzz in this early primary state. Barack Obama held a fundraiser for about 200 people at the home of a wealthy supporter in Charleston, followed by a town hall meeting for 1,700 at a local high school. At the other end of the state in Greenville, Hillary Clinton packed about 1,000 into a black church.

Richardson doesn’t draw crowds like those. He was Columbia, across the street from a State Capitol where the Confederate flag still flies, having lunch with 15 Hispanic leaders in a dining room at the top of an office building. He joked with them in Spanish, telling them that he had considered adding his mother’s name to his in the Spanish tradition, but that “Bill Richardson Lopez” wouldn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

Being the first Hispanic to launch a credible presidential capaign is another of his assets, particularly in Western states. But it is not likely to help Richardson much here, given that Hispanics account for only about 4% of the electorate. Besides, businesswoman Luz Rodriguez-Arpan told him, “This state is still fighting over the confederate flag, so you can imagine [what happens] when Hispanic and immigration issues surface.”

Richardson might seem to have other things to recommend him in South Carolina, though. He is by many measures the most conservative Democrat running. At the debate, moderator Brian Williams of NBC noted that Richarardson had the highest rating of any candidate from either party from the National Rifle Association. “I’m a Westerner,” Richardson said. “I’m a Governor of New Mexico. The Second Amendment is precious in the West.” But the Governor acknowledges that the best he can hope for in South Carolina is to come in third. “I need to be in the top three,” he says. “You’ve got to be realistic.”

Where Democrats who run for President have often been been typecast as lacking in stature—the 1988 field was famously known as the “Seven Dwarfs”—this year’s seems long on qualifications. Indeed, on paper, the candidates who have been relegated to the “second tier” look better than the front runners. In addition to Richardson, they include Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd. By comparison, Clinton is still a relatively junior Senator, who registered 52% disapproval in the last Gallup poll. Obama has even less experience. And third-running John Edwards, a former Senator who served only one term, failed to carry even his home state of North Carolina when he was on the national ticket with John Kerry in 2004.

But what the top three do have, as Richardson said, is fame. And with celebrity come endorsements and money. All three matter more than ever in an election season where the big states are moving their primaries to early February.

Richardson still insists the race is winnable for him. “I’m moving away from the second tier to the first tier,” he says, and pauses for comic effect, “slowly, quietly.” But he insists that he has time, and notes that both John Kerry and Bill Clinton were late bloomers in their primaries, too. “It’s 10 months away,” he says. “I want to break through Jan. 1. I don’t want to peak right now. I want to peak when Bill Clinton and John Kerry peaked.”

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