SANTA FE, N.M. – When Republican gubernatorial challenger John Dendahl traveled to sparsely populated Catron County recently to drum up support in the cattle-ranching country of far western New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson was campaigning more than 2,000 miles away — in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Richardson was there in his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association. But critics, and Dendahl is among the most vocal, say Richardson is laying the groundwork for a run for president in 2008. And they are trying to use that as a weapon against him.
"Substantially every official act of Richardson's is calculated in some way or other toward self-advancement with an eye to higher public office," says Dendahl, a former state GOP chairman.
The first-term governor — a former U.N. ambassador, Clinton administration energy secretary, and diplomatic troubleshooter who has visited North Korea — says he will decide in January whether to seek the White House.
"I don't find it being a deterrent to my re-election," Richardson says of the speculation about his White House aspirations. "It's a possibility. It might not happen. I think New Mexicans, through polling data I've seen and just general sentiment, accept that and are comfortable with it."
With polls showing him far ahead in the re-election race, Richardson has been free to travel the country, and has made three visits this year to New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary of the season. He makes speeches, campaigns for other Democrats and sometimes delivers big contributions from the DGA to gubernatorial nominees.
"That's a great position for a potential presidential candidate. You're able to make a lot of people in your party happy. You show up for big events with checks," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"He's building up chits and these candidates will always remember the people who helped them out when they needed it the most. If these Democratic nominees for governor get elected, they're going to have a ready-made army to deploy for the new governor's favorite presidential candidate."
A recent poll by the Albuquerque Journal showed Richardson with a 2-to-1 lead over Dendahl.
Richardson's re-election campaign is flush with cash, having raised more than $8 million so far. He is flooding the airwaves with feel-good TV ads. One ad spoofed a Western movie and portrayed Richardson as the "new lawman" in town. He wore a cowboy hat and a tin star and rode a horse.
In contrast, Dendahl has scrambled just to raise enough money for a radio ad blitz in the closing weeks of the campaign. Dendahl entered the race late, replacing a physician who won the June primary but dropped out a few days later.
Richardson has largely ignored Dendahl. Instead, he touts his achievements, including the start of pre-kindergarten programs; a three-tier minimum salary program for teachers; a constitutional amendment to spend more on schools; personal income tax cuts; and a $1.6 billion highway construction and transportation program, including the start of commuter rail service in the Albuquerque area.
Dendahl decries spending increases during the Richardson administration and higher fees and taxes, such as on diesel fuel. He advocates spending restraints on state government and supports tax credits to allow parents unhappy with the public schools to send their children elsewhere.