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Richardson Slow to Woo Members

As he presses ahead with his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson may look to Capitol Hill and wonder, “Where’s the love?”

Despite spending 15 years in the House, Richardson has racked up few Congressional endorsements in the initial months of his exploratory campaign. But that might just be because his former colleagues are asking the same question of him.

According to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where Richardson had been expected to benefit from support, the first major Hispanic presidential candidate has made no major outreach efforts in recent months, although he has contacted some of the group’s members individually.

Amanda Cooper, Richardson’s deputy campaign manager, said the candidate hasn’t amassed many pledges of support from Members of Congress because he hasn’t actively sought them yet.

“We haven’t focused as much on the actual endorsements,” said Cooper, who asserted that targeted outreach to Members on the Hill would come in time. “We’ve been focused on grass roots.”

Cooper said the campaign makes a point to reach out to elected officials in places where Richardson travels, but she also noted the fact that the majority of Democratic hopefuls currently serve on Capitol Hill, making the endorsement game all the more complicated — even for a former Member.

“A lot of them have long-standing relationships with a number of people running,” Cooper said. “We have a number of people who will endorse us or have endorsed or are working for us behind the scenes.”

Several Latino Democrats, including Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), described Richardson’s low profile with Hill lawmakers not as a snub but merely as an acknowledgment that many CHC members have already pledged their allegiances to other candidates.

“Many of us had already made a commitment” before Richardson announced, said Grijalva, who has endorsed former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) for the Democratic nomination. “I think we all wish him well, but we have made a commitment.”

Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (Texas), who has also endorsed Edwards, echoed that sentiment: “From the beginning the governor has known about previous commitments made by Members. He respects that, but he’s also a realist.”

Gonzalez said that while Richardson has not reached out to him on Capitol Hill, the governor has invited him to fundraisers he has held in or near Gonzalez’s district in San Antonio. “The governor is looking at the Hispanic community as a fertile ground,” Gonzalez said.

About half of the 19 House lawmakers active in the CHC have endorsed a contender in the 2008 campaign, including Edwards and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Barack Obama (Ill.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.).

Among those CHC members, only one, Rep. Ed Pastor (Ariz.), has endorsed Richardson, serving as his Arizona chairman. Although Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Texas) has donated $1,000 to Richardson’s exploratory committee and hosted a fundraiser for the candidate, the Texan said last week that he has yet to formally issue an endorsement.

“Bill’s got the most experience of anyone I’ve seen,” Reyes said last week. “I get a chance to talk to him fairly frequently. … He’s been a good friend and neighbor.”

Richardson, who served in the House from 1983 to 1997, also has the endorsements of the New Mexico delegation’s only Democratic members, Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Tom Udall. And he recently picked up the endorsement of former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros (D), one of the country’s most prominent Hispanic politicians.

Cooper, who is Udall’s daughter, said that in addition to the handful of Member endorsements, a couple of former Members are also lending support to Richardson’s campaign by helping with fundraising and organizing. Among them are former Reps. Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.) and Don Bonker (D-Wash.).

“The governor has a lot of friends who are still serving or are not serving who are very supportive,” she said.

Many CHC lawmakers said that while they had been contacted by at least one Democratic candidate, they are keeping their powder dry for the immediate future.

Among those Members is Rep. Solomon Ortiz (Texas), who was elected in the same freshman class as Richardson in 1982.

“He’d be one of the top guys I’m looking at, but so are others,” said Ortiz, who keeps in touch with his one-time colleague, who left the House in 1997 to become U.N. ambassador under President Bill Clinton. “He’s a good man … but I’ll wait to make my decision.”

Similarly, Rep. Dennis Cardoza (Calif.) said he and Rep. Jim Costa (Calif.), who represent neighboring districts, have issued written invitations to Democratic candidates to visit their home state, and they will endorse a contender pending those meetings.

“We’re looking forward to Mr. Richardson coming,” Cardoza said, noting that he has also spoken with the Obama and Clinton campaigns, while Edwards has already visited the area. “I think he’s one of the real potentials to be a spoiler in this.”

CHC Chairman Joe Baca (Calif.) added in a separate interview that the caucus — which is made up solely of Democratic lawmakers, although it is not a partisan organization— will not endorse any candidate in the Democratic primary, although the organization does intend to take part in several debates. Candidates will also be invited to the annual Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Gala, hosted by the nonprofit organization.

“Each individual will endorse whoever they want during the primary race,” Baca said last week, adding that he will not issue any endorsements himself “to be fair to all candidates. I have to be neutral.”

When asked about Richardson’s effort, Baca said, “He’s got great connections. The problem is, does he have the money?”

Despite that apparent hurdle, Baca added: “You can’t count anyone out until all the votes are counted.”

Also uncommitted are Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.), John Salazar (Colo.) and Hilda Solis (Calif.). Additionally, neither Reps. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.) nor Linda Sánchez (Calif.) have endorsed candidates; they recently quit the organization over internal disputes including perceived chauvinism and complaints over the group’s organization, respectively.

Cooper said that Richardson plans to come to the Hill to meet with Members at some point.

“We will definitely be coming and meeting with the Hispanic caucus and the [Congressional] Black Caucus and other Members as well,” she said.

One ex-Hill staffer with past experience working on presidential campaigns said that meeting with Members — particularly those who share a similar base — would be especially beneficial for someone like Richardson, who is not among the top tier of contenders at the moment.

The ex-staffer, who is not aligned with any of the current 2008 candidates, said that Members’ endorsements could be valuable not only because of their accompanying Rolodexes but because they would help show momentum for a second-tier candidate.

“When you’re not the frontrunner, [reaching out to Members is] a good use of your time,” the source said. “There’s a value in it for him. They have their own base, and they have a financial base.”

Richardson will begin airing television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire today in an effort to introduce himself to voters there, becoming the first Democratic candidate to go on TV.

In the first quarter of the year he raised $6.2 million and showed a little more than $5 million in the bank on March 31.

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