Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson jokes with IAFF District Vice President Michael Mullane at an International Association of Firefighters convention in Portsmouth on Thursday, May 10, 2007. (AP photo)
PORTSMOUTH — Bill Richardson strolled into the room and locked firefighter Mike Mullane in a bear hug. Seconds later, he asked firefighters from around the country to return the embrace.
The New Mexico governor was the first of six Democratic presidential hopefuls to speak to a major firefighters' union meeting at the Sheraton Harborside Hotel Thursday and today. He repeatedly asked for the support that helped John Kerry capture the party's nomination in 2004.
The would-be king makers of American politics noted that Kerry secured an endorsement when he was not a front-runner, and that second-tier candidates like Richardson have a legitimate shot at winning their backing.
Richardson touted his record as a friend of labor and his credentials as a former secretary of energy and United Nations ambassador.
"I'll be there with you," he said, "and not just for the photo ops," he said
Richardson also praised Florida for moving its primary up to Jan. 29, after Florida firefighter Bob Carver asked his opinion of the early primary schedule.
The Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire did not let Richardson forget where he was campaigning. The state union gave the candidate a T-shirt proclaiming New Hampshire as "First In The Nation." Carver, who serves as president of the Florida state union, said the Sunshine State is bigger and more diverse than the Granite State. Carver called the squeeze on Iowa and New Hampshire a part of the evolution of politics. "Maybe it's the first movement toward a national primary," he said in an interview. "Let's get it over with."
Later, during an interview in his suite overlooking Portsmouth Harbor, Richardson said he is striving to be competitive in every nominating contest.
By state law, New Hampshire's primary must come at least a week before a similar election. Secretary of State William Gardner, who will set the date later this year, has the power to schedule the primary for earlier than the date publicized by the Democratic National Committee and others. The calendar at this time has Iowa on Jan. 14, Nevada on Jan. 19, New Hampshire possibly on Jan. 22, and South Carolina and Florida on Jan. 29. The next round of contests is Feb. 5, which has so many state elections it is being billed as a national primary day.
After expressing his respect for New Hampshire's traditional role, Richardson said the calendar crowding makes the New Hampshire primary more influential.
Five more Democrats will speak today to the union, officially known as the Federation of State and Provincial Professional Fire Fighters Association. They are, in order of appearance, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is campaigning out West and is scheduled to make a call-in.
In the end, Richardson said, the race will be decided by discussions in living rooms, town halls and firehouses.
"I know I'm not a rock star like others," said Richardson, wearing cowboy boots and blue jeans with his coat and tie. "Although I'm getting there."