RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
By the end of this week, Bill Richardson will have campaigned for president in 98 of Iowa's 99 counties. He's touted his experience. He's now the Democratic governor of New Mexico. He's also served as a secretary of energy, member of Congress, U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and international troubleshooter. These are rather cosmopolitan credentials, but Richardson has focused his underdog campaign on the towns and farms of rural Iowa.
The farm town of Bedford near Iowa's southern border is where NPR's David Welna spent time with Richardson earlier this week.
DAVID WELNA: Question: How does a border state Mexican-American governor with polished nails, a navy blue blazer and cowboy boots instantly connect with a table full of seven ruddy-faced Midwestern farmers wearing feed caps and bib overalls?
Answer: He makes it clear that like them he's a guy who likes guns and hunting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico; Presidential Candidate): Nice to see you guys. I'm Bill Richardson.
Unidentified Man #1: He lies a lot.
Gov. RICHARDSON: I'm running for president, and one thing I want to say to you, I'm the only endorsed by the NRA. Does that help me?
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, it does.
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, it does back here. Right.
WELNA: This is the 96th county Richardson's campaigned in, and it's far off the paths beaten by other presidential hopefuls. Rural Iowa, Richardson says, has become his niche.
Gov. RICHARDSON: Candidates concentrate on the urban areas, and if you add up all the rural areas, you can come up with a lot of caucus votes from rural counties that are not paid attention, you know, little towns of a thousand people. Even if I get 25 people, 40 people, I'm touching numbers, and getting caucus votes is like hand-to-hand combat.
WELNA: At Bedford's tiny country club, a few dozen area residents assemble for an event Bill Richardson likes to call his job interview. Retired family therapist Willie Adams(ph) says he's voted twice in the past for Ross Perot. This time both he and his wife are considering Bill Richardson.
Mr. WILLIE ADAMS: Because I have been impressed by what I've heard on the debates and on some of his commercials and some of the things he's done. And we haven't made up our minds, but maybe today we will. I don't know.
WELNA: One local who has made up her mind about Richardson is 71-year-old Ina Claire Lister(ph).
Ms. INA CLAIRE LISTER: We have had some candidates that are talking about experience. We've had some candidates that are talking about change. Bill Richardson has them both. Please welcome Governor Bill Richardson.
(Soundbite of applause)
WELNA: Richardson immediately sets about establishing his bona fides. Once more he brings up his fondness for the shooting sports.
Gov. RICHARDSON: This is a lovely little community. I see a golf course. I'm not much of golfer. I am a hunter, so maybe if I give you a good speech, one of you will take me hunting out here. I know this is a great hunting area.
WELNA: But the question for Iowa voters is not whether Richardson is, as one local put it, a good old boy, but whether it's worth voting in a caucus for someone stuck in fourth place in the polls. Richardson tries putting such doubts to rest.
Gov. RICHARDSON: I'm still moving up in the polls. We're electable. We're 12, 13, 14 percent. The leaders are in the 20s, so we're within striking distance. In New Hampshire we're third right now. I feel good about New Hampshire. I feel good about Iowa.
WELNA: As for issues, Richardson says number one for him is ending the war in Iraq.
Gov. RICHARDSON: I have the clearest plan. I'd bring all the troops home within a year. This war, our troops have become targets. It's just become a disaster.
WELNA: But Richardson also takes care not to bash the party of the president who started that war. Like most of rural Iowa, voters here chose President Bush over John Kerry three years ago. Richardson promises them a bipartisan administration.
Gov. RICHARDSON: I would tell you who my cabinet is before the election if I'm the nominee, so that you know the kind of team that I would have. I'd have independents and Republicans in my cabinet. Don't worry, I won't overdo the Republicans, but I will have them.
WELNA: After the event, I asked one-time Ross Perot-backer Willie Adams if he's made up his mind yet about voting for Richardson.
Mr. ADAMS: Well, I'm certainly more stronger for him, but I want to wait to hear what everybody else has to say before we actually make the decision.
WELNA: Richardson himself later insists such lingering indecision doesn't bother him.
Gov. RICHARDSON: That's good for me because there are still open minds. And I emphasize that I can win.
WELNA: You really think you can?
Gov. RICHARDSON: Oh, yeah. Well, I need to end up in the top three. I'm not - it'd be hard to win here. But if I end up in the top three, I'll take off, and I can win the nomination.
WELNA: Still, many here see Richardson more as a great running mate for someone else. No way, he says.
Gov. RICHARDSON: I'm running for president. I'm going to win the nomination. I don't need to think about vice president.
WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa.