LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In the heartland of America he is just Gov. Bill Richardson. But in big Hispanic states like California the Democratic U.S. presidential hopeful tells voters he is also a Lopez.
“California has a lot of Hispanic voters and they don’t know I’m Hispanic,” said Richardson, governor of New Mexico and son of a Mexican woman named Lopez.
His decision to officially launch his bid for the White House on Monday in the state with the largest Hispanic population was more than symbolic. It was strategic.
“I am saying ‘It’s Bill Richardson Lopez and I am one of you and I would like you to consider me, not because I am Hispanic but because I have the best program for the country’,” he told Reuters in an interview late on Monday.
Bilingual, born in California and raised in Mexico, Richardson aims to be the first Hispanic president of the United States. His candidacy comes at a time when Hispanics and their large immigration numbers are front and center in the U.S. policy debate.
“If I am able to make a dent in states like California, Texas and Florida with large Latino populations, I am going to be a factor in this race,” he said.
Richardson, 59, is considered a longshot for the nomination in a crowded Democratic field, his poll numbers running in single digits behind powerful candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.
But changes in the electoral calendar could favor his bid. California moved up its primary election to February 5 to have a bigger role in shaping the November 2008 election, and Florida on Monday surprised many by moving its primary up to January 29.
Richardson was a high-profile ambassador to the United Nations, renowned negotiator and energy secretary in President Bill Clinton’s administration. But for Hispanics, he is likely to push his experience as governor of a border state who sees violent crime spilling over from Mexico and families divided between the two countries.
Some of his policies that are likely to go down well with Hispanics are opposition to building a wall on the long border and immigration reform that would make uniting families a priority.
He calls the immigration reform bill now under discussion in the Senate “a milestone” because it provides a path to legality for some 12 million immigrants, is bipartisan and has President George W. Bush’s support. But he dislikes its lack of guarantees for family reunification.
“If I had to vote on this bill today unchanged, I would reluctantly vote for it,” he said. “But I believe it has to be improved.”
Richardson may not have the money or the media attention of Clinton and Obama, but he believes that working at grass roots levels as a Richardson in Iowa and a Lopez in California will pay off.
“My plan is to move up slowly,” he said. “I don’t want to be at the top right now. What for? We’ve got nine months to go.”