By KATE NASH
This is where it starts for presidential candidate Bill Richardson: a dim, red velour ballroom in the basement of the Carson Valley Inn Casino, with a plywood gray donkey and a pile of yellow “Nevada for Richardson” buttons.
Minden, with a population of about 3,000, isn’t Washington. It’s not even Des Moines, Iowa.
But this small town and others like it across this state are critical if the New Mexico governor’s bid for president is to get beyond the starting gate.
Richardson concedes that he must exceed expectations here in Nevada’s Jan. 19, 2008, caucus if he wants a shot at winning the rest of the country. It’s the second stop on the Democratic Party’s roll call of primaries, sandwiched between Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus and the New Hampshire primary.
“I have to do extremely well. I have to do more than respectably. I’m not sure I can carry Nevada, but I’m going to try,” he told a bevy of reporters, mostly from local newspapers, on Saturday.
His effort will center on small towns like Minden, built up against the Sierra Nevadas near Lake Tahoe.
While Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was in Iowa over the weekend, Richardson was here — less than a week after announcing his bid for the White House — talking to a crowd smaller than he could easily draw on any day back home at the Capitol in Santa Fe.
The sometimes impatient, crowd-loving governor didn’t seem to mind.
“I wanted to emphasize northern Nevada,” he said when asked why he came to this Republican stronghold.
“Like in New Mexico, Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Las Cruces are not the only centers of gravity. Rural areas, rural parts of Nevada, Reno, Carson City, Minden … (are) important.”
Richardson has conceded he won’t have as much money as rivals such as Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois or former Sen. John Edwards, so his strategy will be to try to connect with people in places big and small, wherever, whenever.
As sure as he’ll journey to other early-primary states, he’ll be back in Nevada — in Carson City for a debate in February and in Las Vegas for a debate in March. Richardson said he can’t afford to write any area off.
“Only 15 percent of America lives in rural areas,” he said before speaking to about 250 Democrats at the annual Douglas County Democrats Turn Nevada Blue dinner Saturday night. “And as a candidate, I’m going to pay attention to rural areas.”
Before he and retired Gen. Wesley Clark — another potential candidate — spoke at the dinner, they held mini-news conferences in the Chapel at the Inn, a wedding room right across from the ballroom.
“My main message in running for president is that I’m a governor who has managed the state successfully, a Westerner,” Richardson said. “I’m the candidate with, I believe, the most foreign policy experience, as ambassador to the United Nations, as secretary of energy, with energy being one of the most critical areas,” he said.
“I know how to reduce energy dependence. I’ve done it. I’ve done it as governor.”
As much as he’s looking for news coverage, he’s looking for voters.
He connected with several by way of his 50-minute speech, which touched on everything from the war in Iraq to foreign policy, water and renewable energy.
Shirley Fraser, for example, had heard of Richardson before, and started checking him out on the Internet after he announced for president a week ago.
She found herself at the Carson Inn on Saturday night, wanting to hear him in person.
“I loved it. I really loved it,” she said. More than anything, Richardson’s diplomatic and negotiating skills appeal to her.
Place Fraser, a restaurant bookkeeper, in Richardson’s column.
Jeff Elpern, a high-tech business owner in Reno, said he’s looking for a presidential candidate with courage.
“I’m looking for someone with a spine,” he said.
Richardson might be that man.
But he’s got to let the world know.
“I think he’s an interesting candidate,” Elpern said, noting how early it is in the race. “But he doesn’t have the high-powered candidacy like Obama and Hillary.”
(Contact Kate Nash of The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M., at www.abqtrib.com.)