- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

Talk about cash. The first-quarter fund-raising reports for the 2008 presidential candidates came out last week, and several top-tier candidates outdid themselves. Reports indicate the Democrats combined raised close to $78 million dollars, followed by the Republicans, who came in at $51 million— the first time since 1976 that Democrats have been able to pull in more cash.

While the major candidates held press conferences and released statements to highlight the depth and breadth of their fundraising success, one of the second-tier candidates, New Mexico’s Gov. Bill Richardson, spent his week outlining a very important trip he will take to North Korea.

There’s no question Mr. Richardson is running behind — both in the polls and in the money he has raised to date. Mr. Richardson, the son of an American father and a Mexican mother, has what some political observers would call an excellent resume. In addition to being a governor (five of the last 12 presidents went from the statehouse to the White House), Mr. Richardson has been a member of Congress, a Cabinet secretary and a U.N. ambassador. Every step along the way, he has been able to accomplish good deeds and make a name for himself as a tough but gentle leader and a man of strong convictions.

In a lineup that includes so many rock stars and celebrities (with more still pondering whether to toss their hats into the ring), Mr. Richardson understands that second-tier candidates must learn how to pace themselves. Stay a little bit under the radar and wait until the right moment in a debate, or just before the upcoming caucuses or primaries, to strike fire.

Mr. Richardson’s $6.3 million isn’t enough to get people talking about his prospects or to write long, flowing profiles on his international trips. It certainly isn’t enough to get the media to re-evaluate his status as a second-tier candidate. But it would be a mistake to count him out. The crowded field with no heir apparent on either side sets the stage for a classic come-from-behind victory. And for someone who once played baseball, this should be an easy test of Mr. Richardson’s stamina. Just look to the past for clues on how Mr. Richardson could be the real sleeper in this political race.

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both former governors, were dismissed as nonfactors in their respective campaigns at this point in the cycle. Mr. Carter, who had about a dozen challengers, didn’t pop up on the radar until after he had won the Iowa caucuses. Mr. Clinton, who entered late in 1991, had to reinvent himself to get into the game. With 10 months before the first vote is cast in Iowa, Mr. Richardson still has time to show Democrats his unique presidential timber.

After six years of unilateral, aggressive, bullheaded foreign policy that has succeeded only in making the United States reviled internationally, voters are eager to elect a true statesman — someone who can mend the fences so thoroughly destroyed by President Bush’s pre-emptive wars and cowboy diplomacy. In this arena, Mr. Richardson has credentials unparalleled by any other presidential candidate of either party. In fact, the Bush administration, which deplored Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria, may have given Mr. Richardson a backhanded compliment last week when it said in a statement that a “small number of U.S. officials will accompany the delegation to provide support and technical expertise.”

Mr. Richardson, who has managed to get several interesting bills passed this legislative session back home in New Mexico, starts his new mission to North Korea as the co-head of a private bipartisan delegation he arranged. When I spoke to the governor, who was campaigning in New Mexico, he told me he was “taking advantage of the standing invitation the government of Pyongyang has extended” to him after his successful past negotiations for the release of hostages, prisoners of war and American servicemen. One of the objectives of his mission this week is to retrieve the remains of U.S. troops who died during the Korean War.

Mr. Richardson is far from a shoo-in, but there’s a decent chance he could end up surprising a few donors who are so heavily invested in the so-called front-runners. Just as you wouldn’t walk out after the first inning of a baseball game figuring you knew the final score, it would be wise to keep an eye on Mr. Richardson. He is behind, but it’s only the beginning. The hares may tire themselves out, lose their freshness, stumble or implode from the relentless media attention of a 24-hour news cycle eager to jump on any misstep, leaving the path wide open for a well-positioned diplomatic tortoise.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR and former campaign manager for Al Gore.

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