- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's highly public failure to rein in gasoline prices and to stem nuclear security lapses has all but killed his bid to become Vice President Al Gore's running mate.

Mr. Richardson's spectacular flameout is good news for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose popularity among Hispanics might have been challenged if Mr. Gore had chosen the government's highest ranking Latino as his political partner.

"There's an old saying in politics that if you had a choice between being good and being lucky, you'd rather be lucky," said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "Bill Richardson hasn't been so lucky lately.

"It's disappointing to many people because he had such a distinguished career so far in politics great guy, charismatic, great campaigner," she said. "It's unfortunate that these incidents came now, when everybody was looking at him through the prism of a potential vice-presidential candidate. It seems to have hurt his chances pretty seriously."

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, agreed.

"You don't want a vice president who brings you baggage," he said. "You want a vice president who might bring you a state."

The amount of baggage now burdening Mr. Richardson is considerable. He has come under heavy fire on Capitol Hill this week for failing to safeguard nuclear secrets at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

More than a year ago, Mr. Richardson vowed to put an end to the lax security that led to scientist Wen Ho Lee being charged with improperly transferring classified material. Mr. Richardson blamed the lapses on the Reagan and Bush administrations and vowed that security would be tightened now that he was on the job.

"I can assure the American people that their nuclear secrets are now safe at the labs," Mr. Richardson declared in May 1999.

But earlier this month, two computer hard drives containing nuclear secrets were discovered missing from a locked vault at Los Alamos. Senators denounced Mr. Richardson for shirking his duties as energy secretary in order to campaign for the vice presidency.

To make matters worse, on Wednesday he refused to appear before a Senate committee investigating the missing hard drives.

The snub was considered particularly egregious because Mr. Richardson has been known to drop important government business at a moment's notice in order to help Mr. Gore's campaign.

For example, the New York Times reported last month that Mr. Richardson "cut short a visit to India for meetings on nuclear proliferation last October so he could be in New Hampshire to toss questions at Vice President Al Gore in preparation for his first debate with Bill Bradley. After only 28 hours in India, Mr. Richardson rushed to London and then flew to Boston, where a waiting Gore aide frantically drove him to Hanover, N.H., just in time to catch the vice president in the parking lot."

Adding fuel to the fire is Mr. Richardson's erroneous prediction that petroleum prices would fall. When oil prices first spiked last winter, Mr. Richardson acknowledged that federal regulators failed to anticipate supply problems.

"It is obvious that the federal government was not prepared," Mr. Richardson said in February. "We were caught napping. We got complacent."

As higher gasoline prices began to put political pressure on the White House, Mr. Richardson was dispatched to the Middle East to seek relief from OPEC. After returning to the United States, Mr. Richardson assured motorists that lower prices were at hand.

"We expect the downward trend of gasoline prices to continue," he announced in March.

But gasoline prices have skyrocketed. Motorists in many large Midwestern cities are now paying well over $2 a gallon just as the summer vacation season gets under way.

The runaway gasoline prices and disappearing hard drives amount to an almost insurmountable one-two punch to Mr. Richardson's vice-presidential ambitions.

"The political climate has definitely turned against Bill Richardson as a vice-presidential nominee there's just no doubt about it," said Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. "Suddenly, he has liabilities as a candidate that he didn't have before. And why choose a vice-presidential nominee who has liabilities?"

Martin Wattenburg, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine, agreed.

"You always want to avoid controversy with a V.P., and that's why he's out," said Mr. Wattenburg, whose three rules for a vice-presidential pick are "be safe, be safe, be safe."

He added: "He's just too controversial and allows opponents to raise too many issues."

Thursday, for example, Mr. Bush seized upon the disappearing hard drives as political ammunition against the vice president and, by inference, Mr. Richardson.

"This is an administration that promised no more security lapses and then there was another major security lapse," the Texas governor said. "Like all Americans, I'm deeply concerned."

Now that Mr. Richardson's hopes for being on the Democratic ticket have faded, Mr. Bush is free to continue wooing Hispanic voters, a traditionally Democratic voting bloc.

Mr. Bush often speaks Spanish at campaign events in the Southwest and makes liberal use of a handsome Hispanic nephew, also named George Bush, on the campaign trail.

"The Latino electorate is up for grabs, although generally it's more Democratic," Miss Atkeson said. "Richardson could have gone around the country to attract even more Latino voters. If I was Al Gore, I would see that as an advantage and if I was George Bush, I would see that as a disadvantage."

• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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