Presidential hopeful to focus on Carolinas

COLUMBIA -- In the middle of Bill Richardson's stump speech at a private Columbia fundraiser last week, the lights suddenly dimmed.

It is the opposite metaphor from what the New Mexico governor and 2008 Democratic presidential hopeful is trying to project. Richardson has good reason to think his campaign is beginning to shine.

He raised $80,000 at the reception at the Shandon home of his S.C. campaign adviser Crawford Cook (where someone had just accidentally bumped into the dining room light switch). There are polls in Iowa and New Hampshire showing him solidly in fourth place and knocking on the door of third. Fundraising is going relatively well.

Richardson said he's beginning to feel a bit of momentum.

"Can I win?" asked Richardson, in a khaki suit, blue shirt and brown tie, his big hands holding a folded piece of paper with the names of guests he's supposed to mention. "The answer is yes."

The more realistic answer, others say, is "maybe."

"Of the 'second-tier' candidates on the Democratic side, he has as good a chance, or maybe better, than the others," said Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen, who attended the reception with his wife, Patsy Stone.

Polls in early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire show Richardson breaking out of the second-tier pack of candidates that also includes Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut. In Iowa, he remains about 10 points behind Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois for third place. In New Hampshire, however, Richardson is only about 4 points behind former N.C. Sen. John Edwards.

He barely registers in most South Carolina polls, which have been dominated by Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Obama. But that will change, Richardson said, once he starts putting as much emphasis here as he has in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"We're going to work hard here," Richardson said. "I'm going to compete here."

It might help, however, if he stops telling reporters that his goal for South Carolina is to finish in the "top three or four," which he has done on a few occasions.

"You're going to see those poll numbers go up," Richardson told his supporters.

Obama and Clinton have raised more than $50 million apiece so far in 2007. Richardson has raised about $13 million.

But, he points out, "three (Democratic) candidates gained more in the second quarter than in the first and I'm one of the three."

The other two are Clinton and Obama.

Among the faithful at Cook's home last week were a number of Palmetto State Democrats who have yet to commit to a candidate, including former Gov. Jim Hodges and his wife, Rachel.

Hodges said he still hasn't made a choice but said he's impressed by Richardson.

Richland County Treasurer David Adams has endorsed Richardson and said the campaign is moving in the right direction.

"The good thing now is when people name the candidates, they mention the fourth name," he said. "And he's the fourth name."

Reach Gould Sheinin at (803) 771-8658