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Bill Richardson stops short of endorsing her or him

March 11, 2008 |  1:54 pm

He came close. Oh, so close. But Bill Richardson stopped just short early this afternoon of endorsing one of his former competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination -- a coy game he's played before.

Speaking at a conference on rogue states and diplomacy at the UCLA Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations, Richardson was asked by moderator Maggie Farley, who covers the United Nations for The Times, who he thought was best able to handle both the domestic and international challenges facing America.

Richardson, as New Mexico governor, is a Democratic Party superdelegate, and he demurred on the question. But his answer still served as tea leaves to be read. "I'm truly conflicted," Richardson said. "I'm torn. I see ... a lot of loyalty I owe President Clinton. He made me U.N. ambassador. He made me secretary of Energy. He's treated me extremely well. But you know what? I paid him back. Because I served well." Richardson described Hillary Clinton as "enormously capable ... but I did run against her."

Then he focused on Barack Obama, someone he said "I don't know as well. But I think there's ...

something that is very special about this guy, that is good." Richardson related an anecdote from one of the debates: He fielded a question and then, as the next point went to another candidate, leaned toward Obama next to him on the stage and whispered, "'Boy some of these debates really boring, aren't they?' Or something like that. And he said, 'Oh god, yeah, you're right.' " 

As the two were whispering, a question suddenly veered back to Richardson -- who hadn't been paying attention. "I looked at Obama and he says [whispering] 'Katrina. Katrina.' And I go back and say, 'Well, my three-point plan on Katrina is ...' Obama could have thrown me under the bus. But he didn't. So I said, 'Thanks, Obama,' and he said, 'Just listen next time.'"

So is that enough to draw Richardson's endorsement? "There is something about him that has inspired a lot of people. I'm kind of torn there.... I will endorse someone."

Richardson criticized the role the superdelegates will play in the decision, saying that the nomination should be decided by voters. But he also teased, saying the media -- which  he believes gave him scant attention during his campaign for the nomination -- now are interested in his endorsement. "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to ride my horse in New Mexico. I'm going to spend time with my family. I'm going to grow my ugly beard. And I'm going to make you wait."

So what does Richardson, an experienced diplomat, gain by waiting?  He hasn't burned any bridges when one or the other likely presidential nominees starts looking for vice presidential candidates and Cabinet secretaries.

-- Scott Martelle