Sell McCain, buy Richardson

Two presidential aspirants finished last month with the same amount of cash on hand, a bit more than $5 million. One was a Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The other was a Democrat, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

But these two candidates from neighboring Southwestern states are headed in very different directions. McCain is on his way down, Richardson, on his way up.

This is partly an expectations game. McCain was long considered the Republican frontrunner, so when he trailed both Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in the fund-raising sweepstakes, the whiff of disappointment was unmistakable. McCain only aggravated the anxiety surrounding his campaign by firing staffers and re-organizing his finance team.

Richardson, on the other hand, has long been relegated to second-tier status, so his money numbers marked a surprising success. And then, in an unscientific but widely noticed straw poll, conducted by the grassroots organization, Richardson finished second to John Edwards.

If candidates were investments, the smart money would be saying: sell McCain, buy Richardson.

One of McCain’s problems is obvious: on the most important issue facing the country, the Iraq war, he is badly out of step with public opinion. In the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, only 35 percent favor the president’s decision to send more troops into battle while 65 percent oppose him. Yet McCain remains Bush’s loudest and strongest supporter.

But McCain has an even bigger problem: he’s squandering his prime political asset, his reputation for candor and integrity. In a monumental blunder, the senator strolled through a Baghdad market – wearing body armor and guarded by hundreds of troops – and announced that the surge was working and calm was spreading.

He could have been wearing a flight suit and landing on a carrier and proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.”

This is the same guy who’s now cozying up to the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the right-wing preachers he denounced six years ago as “agents of intolerance.” He was right the first time. The Straight Talk Express is as badly damaged as Jon Corzine’s Suburban, which veered into a guardrail and sent the New Jersey governor into intensive care. Like Corzine, McCain was not wearing a seat belt when he crashed.

Finally, McCain seems to have lost his zest for battle. His speech at VMI, defending his war policy, sounded weary and worn out. The words were undoubtedly sincere, but the delivery had no spark, no sizzle.

Put another way, McCain was acting his age. He’s already 70, and if elected, he’d be 72 on inauguration day, by far the oldest president ever to assume office. (Ronald Reagan, who holds the record, was 69, and he hadn’t spent more than five years in a prison camp.)

Bill Richardson will turn 60 next fall and seems full of energy. In recent months he’s traveled to both Darfur and North Korea on diplomatic missions, which underscores the fact that he’s actually held more government posts than any candidate in either party.

Congressman, cabinet secretary, U.N. ambassador and now, two-term governor. And remember, we elect governors, not senators. In the last 30 years four governors have won the presidency; in our entire history, only two senators have accomplished that feat.

One very small straw in the wind: Jeff Woodburn, former Democratic chairman in New Hampshire, recently signed on with Richardson citing his “impeccable resume.” Then he added: “What I like most is despite that stature, he’s one of the most approachable and likeable candidates I’ve ever been around.” Likeability matters. Just ask two candidates who didn’t have it, Al Gore and John Kerry.

Then there was this blog entry by James Boyce on The Huffington Post: “On the left, the netroots-early-warning-detection-system is starting to buzz a little bit and the recipient of the buzz is Bill Richardson.” The reasons: he favors a complete pullout from Iraq, has real credentials on energy issues, and his mother is Mexican. Yes, his father was a wealthy American banker, and he attended a fancy New England prep school, but he speaks fluent Spanish and would appeal strongly to America’s largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority.

“Richardson,” writes Boyce, “will get a look over the next 60 to 90 days and if he transfers his growing online buzz into mainstream media buzz, watch out.”

McCain and Richardson have the same bank balances, but their similarities end there. In the political marketplace today, one is a junk bond, the other a growth stock.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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