WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson is proposing a rule that is common on kindergarten playgrounds but doesn't usually work in politics — be nice to each other.
Richardson hasn't always followed the principle while running for office in his home state of New Mexico. And the leading candidates don't seem to be embracing the idea in the 2008 White House contest, either.
"What I am proposing," Richardson said last week at a candidate forum in Nevada, "is that every Democratic candidate sign a pledge that we will not engage in any negative campaigning toward each other."
Richardson spoke as the campaigns of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were arguing over comments made by an Obama donor who said the Clintons are liars, among other things. Clinton's campaign demanded that Obama apologize, and Obama said he shouldn't be responsible for something someone else said. Richardson took Clinton's side but said the whole mess was damaging.
"I believe the Clinton-Obama spat is not helpful," Richardson said in an interview Tuesday while visiting Washington. "We should stop those kind of attacks on each other and surrogates. We should talk about the issues and be positive."
But during his first run for office in 1980, Richardson criticized opponent Republican Rep. Manuel Lujan for his ties to energy companies and his spotty attendance record. Richardson unexpectedly came within 1 percentage point of victory.
"When you're a big underdog, you've got to go after the other guy's record," Richardson wrote of his decision to go negative in his autobiography, "Between Worlds."
His negative ads in 1980 were against a Republican, not in a primary race like his proposal would affect this time. But the case raises questions about how to define a personal attack.
Richardson said in the interview that his 1980 campaign "was a combination of positive and negative," but he said he didn't attack Lujan personally and instead "talked about a record."
"I think there's a variation of what is negative," Richardson said. "If you point out somebody's record, that's not negative. If you make accusations on that record and get personal, then that's negative. And I believe this Clinton-Obama was too personal."
Richardson plans to turn his proposal into a formal DNC resolution for the party's next meeting, and in the meantime his campaign is asking his rivals to abide by the spirit of the idea.
So far, only one other candidate in the Democratic primary has embraced the idea. "Sign me on to Richardson's pledge, no negatives," Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said as he took to the stage after Richardson in Nevada.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd won't be signing on to the Richardson pledge, said his spokeswoman Beneva Schulte.
"Where genuine differences of policy, record and qualifications exist, we will certainly point them out," Schulte said. "Campaigns are after all about distinctions, but those distinctions should be drawn in a substantive, non-personal manner."
Edwards spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said he agrees with Richardson that voters deserve a substantive campaign, but he doesn't need to sign a pledge.
The Obama and Clinton campaigns did not respond to questions about the pledge.