Richardson Launches in Los Angeles

When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced today that he was officially in the presidential race, he did so in Los Angeles, in the Biltmore Hotel, and in a room where John F. Kennedy accepted the nomination for president in 1960.

The question on more than one person’s mind was, why did he not hold this event in New Mexico?

Noting that he was born in California but quickly left (he spent about 8 hours here as an infant), he quipped, “Now that the California primary has moved I’m trying to improve on those roots.”

The joke hit the spot in a crowd mixed with journalists and his own boosters.

With a group of about two dozen elected officials and dignitaries sitting behind him, including actor Wes Studi, Richardson is determined to show that his candidacy is not only viable, but winnable against a field of superstar contenders and an onerous primary calendar. He touted the latest polling that showed him moving into the double digits in Iowa and New Hampshire after he had been lingering at the “margin for error.”

Doing well in those two states are the key for his campaign surviving until the California primary on Feb. 5, or even the Florida primary on Jan. 29.

It was certainly no surprise that Richardson got in the race, but the event did have the desired effect: It showered Richardson with loads of attention, landing him on the home pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and earning him coverage on the major news channels. Richardson and the fellow second-tier candidates need such coverage, as they trail far behind in fund-raising and certainly do not have the name recognition of, as he likes to point out, the “rock stars.”

Richardson is pitching his experience over celebrity status — a tactic echoed by Chris Dodd and Joe Biden (We’ll be posting an interview with the latter, conducted earlier this month, very soon).

At least a half dozen times during his speech Richardson mentioned the word “diplomacy” — what’s needed in Iraq, the Middle East, Africa, just about anywhere. It bolsters Richardson’s case that, in contrast to Clinton, Obama and Edwards, he’s been actively engaged in brokering peace accords and other agreements, most recently in Darfur and North Korea.

“Being stubborn is not a foreign policy and being president means working with both parties,” he said, and then quoted Lee Iacocca: “Courage in the 21st century doesn’t mean posturing and bravado. Courage means sitting down at the negotiating table and talk.”

He’s called for a “negotiated political settlement” in Iraq, “involving the warring political parties and interested neighbors” as well as a regional conference with Iraq’s neighboring countries including Syria and Iran.

“But I would leave no troops behind in Iraq,” he said. “No air bases. No security patrols. No embedded soldiers training Iraqi forces. …because we all know what that means. It means our troops would still be out on the streets with targets on their backs.”

His speech, delivered at a more careful pace than he’s spoken in the past, covered a range of issues, including efforts to lure movie projects to New Mexico with some of the country’s most generous incentive packages.

Even if his speaking style could hardly be called charismatic, he did raise the inspirational factor of his candidacy, one that he hopes will help him win votes in the west. He’d be the first Latino elected president, although he was careful to point out that he’d not be the first Latino candidate. That was Ben Fernandez, who ran for the Republican nomination in 1980 and was the first chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

The only awkward moment came after he finished his speech and took questions from reporters. When KABC’s John North tried to ask another question of him, Richardson turned to the other side of the room to give another journalist a chance. That turned out to be Karen Ocamb, who reports for IN Los Angeles, which covers gay issues. She asked him what his position was on marriage equality, or whether he was in support of gay marriage. He ran through his list of accomplishments in benefits to gay couples, but didn’t answer that question. When Ocamb asked again, he turned the other way, looking for North.

“Did you have a question?” he asked North. “Where are you when I need you?”

Later, he told Ocamb that he does favor civil unions.

Corrected from an earlier version.

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