SANTA FE, N.M. – Bill Richardson — governor, presidential candidate, hunter — is a good shot, and he has the prey to prove it.
"I would call myself a recreational hunter. I am not an avid hunter or an expert hunter," Richardson said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
The New Mexico governor says hunting is just a hobby and he's still a novice since he took it up in earnest only about four years ago, when he became governor of New Mexico. Fellow hunters praise his skills.
Richardson has bagged traditional game — such as elk and turkey — and stalked the exotic. He shot an oryx, a long-horned antelope native to Africa, during a guided outing in 2005 on a New Mexico ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner.
He owns a 12-gauge Browning over-and-under shotgun, which he's used for hunting birds, including quail and dove. Richardson also owns a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, which is not for hunting, but he has a state permit to carry it concealed. He's borrowed rifles to hunt big game such as elk, deer and the oryx.
Richardson has purchased hunting licenses each year since he took office in 2003, according to state Game and Fish Department records.
In campaign appearances, Richardson cites his Western political roots to explain his positions on issues such as gun control and an endorsement by the National Rifle Association during his gubernatorial re-election last year.
While a congressman, the Democrat voted against a ban on assault weapons and opposed a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases. As governor, he backed and signed legislation allowing New Mexicans to carry concealed weapons.
The Western images fill a new television ad, introduced last week and airing in Iowa and New Hampshire that focuses on Richardson's energy policies. The ad opens with New Mexico landscapes and includes scenes of Richardson hunting with two other people and riding horses with his wife, Barbara.
Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said Richardson's attempt to portray himself as a Westerner may help distinguish the governor from other Democratic candidates.
"This is not an image that Democrats normally run with," said Goldford, who added that the governor's pro-gun positions may not win over liberal voters.
In the Republican field, Mitt Romney has been criticized for calling himself a lifelong hunter although he never had hunting licenses in any of the four states where he has lived. Romney says he's hunted rabbits and varmints, and didn't need a license to hunt for certain small animals.
Richardson — relaxed in his Capitol office and dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a silver bolo tie with turquoise — said he began hunting because he "wanted to go one step beyond" the skeet shooting he'd done in the past. With skeet, clay targets are flung into the air at different angles.
"When I became governor ... I was looking for hobbies. And I basically took up horseback riding, which I knew how to do. I had horses before. And hunting," said Richardson.
"My true recreational loves are riding my horse and hunting because there are no cell phones, no beepers, no BlackBerries."
The governor says he prefers hunting birds.
"You know I'm a little impatient and when you're doing oryx and elk, you tend to get one or two shots. You've got to find them. But with dove, you have a lot of opportunities," he said.
Friends describe Richardson as a good shot.
Jamie Koch of Santa Fe recalls Richardson shooting a grouse as it flew through a narrow gap in trees during a horseback trip into the Pecos Wilderness near Santa Fe.
"Man he just nailed it," said Koch. "I said to myself, 'He's never going to hit that damn grouse.' It was a heckuva shot."
Turner gave permission for Richardson's hunt but he wasn't at the 360,000-acre Armendaris Ranch when Richardson killed the oryx in September 2005, according to Tom Waddell, the ranch manager. The governor also didn't have to pay the $2,500 fee that's normally charged for an individual to hunt trophy oryx — one with at least 36-inch horns. Guides gutted and skinned the animal that Richardson shot.
Richardson said it was his most memorable hunt. He downed the oryx with one shot from at least 100 yards.
He had the oryx head mounted and keeps it in a downstairs room at the governor's mansion. His other hunting trophies also are displayed there: a set of bull elk antlers and a stuffed wild turkey.
And what happened to the elk meat?
"We ate it — at the mansion," said Richardson.