New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as much as endorsed Gov. Howie Dean on Wednesday, setting off a fire storm of outrage and phone calls to the DNC from other campaigns. Richardson, who met with Dean during on the Democratic presidential hopeful's trip out west, told reporters after a private meeting with the Vermonter that "my organization endorsed him." By this, Richardson later said, he had meant the various interest groups -- Hispanic American, native American -- that backed his gubernatorial race.
But Dean and his campaign certainly took it to be an endorsement whatever way Richardson wants to play it, and so, too, do the other Democratic candidates. And they are hopping mad.
Richardson is serving as the chairman of the Democratic National Convention in Boston this summer, and was expected to withhold any endorsement until much later in the process. "I don't see how he can come out now, as he may well have to, and say, 'Sorry folks, that wasn't an endorsement,'" says a Gephardt staffer. "Because it sure looked like one with a joint press conference and the media all over it. I don't see how my guy can go out there and play nice with him knowing what has happened. Richardson isn't some rube. He knows better."
But maybe he hedging his bets that Dean is the man, and is getting on the bandwagon while the getting is good. Richardson was contacted by Clinton loyalists working in the Clark campaign several months ago, but declined to take on any role there. He has met in Washington and elsewhere with Sens. Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards and Rep. Gephardt., so perhaps he just felt the urge to jump off the proverbial cliff with the guy who swayed him.
"Richardson is too much of a pol to not know what he was doing," says a former Richardson staffer in Washington. "He sees an opportunity with Dean that maybe he doesn't see with the others. Can you say Secretary of State? Or even Vice President?"
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