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Richardson May Be Pressed on Senate

Democrats seem giddy after a week’s worth of negative headlines about Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.). Some party strategists have gone so far as to suggest that Domenici could be politically vulnerable for the first time in his 35-year Senate career.

But there is one Democrat in the Land of Enchantment who may not be so happy with the news — the most powerful Democrat of them all, Gov. Bill Richardson.

As Democrats from Albuquerque to Washington, D.C., excoriate Domenici and Wilson for their calls to former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and accuse the Members of violating Congressional ethics rules and tampering with a federal investigation, Richardson has weighed in only once, when he was asked about the controversy at a state House bill-signing ceremony Monday.

“I’m very troubled by it,” he told reporters. “I think David Iglesias was a good law enforcement official, and it was inappropriate for political leaders to call and pressure him, totally inappropriate. And it should be thoroughly investigated.”

Richardson’s reticence may be the product of political cross-currents nationally and at home, just as he is ramping up his presidential bid.

If in fact Democrats are going to make a real run at Domenici as he seeks a seventh term in 2008, most party leaders agree: They could find no stronger challenger than Richardson himself.

“I know everybody’s thinking about the Big Kahuna,” a Washington, D.C., Democratic insider who is knowledgeable about New Mexico said of Richardson. “I know he’s raising a ton of money, all of which is transferrable to a [Senate] race.”

Which is why the suggestions that the previously invincible Domenici may be weakened politically may not be the best news for Richardson’s presidential dreams.

“For [Richardson’s people], this is the worst timing,” the Democratic insider said. “This is not going to be the easiest thing for him to ignore.”

But a spokesman for Richardson’s presidential campaign said the governor is doing just that.

“The governor’s not interested in pursuing anything but the presidency,” said Pahl Shipley, communications director for Richardson’s presidential campaign. “He’s got a great job as governor of New Mexico, he’s determined to be the next president of the United States, and if that doesn’t work out, he’d be happy going back to what he’s described as the best job he’s ever had.”

Richardson spent 15 years in the House until being tapped by then-President Bill Clinton in 1997 to serve as ambassador to the United Nations.

“As far as being a Member of Congress, been there, done that,” Shipley said.

But despite the spokesman’s protestations, some Democrats believe that Richardson, whose gubernatorial term ends in 2010, could be persuaded to run for the Senate if his presidential campaign fizzles out.

“The Democratic nomination for president will be settled in January — even Bill said that,” said Harry Pavlides, a Democratic pollster and operative in Albuquerque, N.M., who is a Richardson-appointed staffer at Expo New Mexico, the agency that runs the state fairgrounds. “And the filing deadline [for the Senate race] is February.”

A strategist who is close to Senate Democrats said the publicity surrounding Domenici’s calls to Iglesias makes it easier for the party to recruit a challenger, and added that Richardson would be formidable even if he waited until 2008 to join the race.

“He’s the one guy who could get in it next spring and still do the organizing,” the strategist said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who serves as Democratic Caucus vice chairman and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, knows Richardson well, having served with him in the House — though there is no evidence yet that he is reaching out to his former colleague to run for Senate.

National and New Mexico Democrats also see Rep. Tom Udall, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez as viable challengers to Domenici, though all three would likely be reluctant to run against the venerable incumbent, who already is the longest-serving Senator in New Mexico history. That’s why the pressure on Richardson to run could mount, especially if the scandal over the U.S. attorney’s office grows.

There is a far greater chance that Udall, Denish or Chavez would run if the 74-year-old Senator decides to retire in the end — a distinct possibility in the view of many Democrats.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee expressed confidence Wednesday that Domenici would be re-elected.

“Sen. Domenici is a true statesman and a champion for New Mexico,” said NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher. “We look forward to his re-election.”

But New Mexico Republican Party spokeswoman Charlotte Balcomb Lane said state GOP officials did not want to comment about the potential political fallout from the U.S. attorney controversy.

“We’re as much observers as anyone else of this melodrama,” she said.

Meanwhile, Democrats are convinced that the controversy will leave Wilson, who was re-elected by less than 900 votes in November, vulnerable in 2008.

But the party does not yet have an obvious contender to take her on this time. Possibilities include the 2006 nominee, former state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, who many Democrats believe blew the race when she turned in a shaky performance during her lone televised debate with Wilson; Albuquerque City Councilor Michael Cadigan; former Albuquerque City Councilor Eric Griego; Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich; state Rep. Rhonda King; state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino; and state Rep. Al Park.

Pavlides said he believes that Chavez, the Albuquerque mayor who already is preparing to run for the open governor’s seat in 2010, may be persuaded to challenge Wilson.

“If you’ve got something you can win at, why not take it?” Pavlides said.

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