Friday, June 29, 2007

Gone in 60 Seconds

I don't envy Pahl Shipley. The BR4P communications director is typically in charge of touting all things Bill Richardson. Not bad work, if you can get it. But it seems like Shipley has been forced to do spin/damage control after every major television appearance the governor has made in the last month.

Today's press release regarding last night's Democratic presidential forum at Howard University celebrates Richardson's "strong debate performance" that "showed again that he is the candidate with the boldest vision and the strongest record to lead America forward."

Not exactly.

Richardson actually started off strong, giving relatively succinct, articulate answers to questions about racial inequality and education. The Guv was focused and memorable. Then the bottom fell out. Richardson was the first candidate to be presented with a question about combating high HIV/AIDs rates in the black community. He fumbled it miserably. The topic clearly took the governor by surprise and it showed. What followed was a painful ramble about moral imperatives, condoms, needles, Africa, more needles and praise for George W. Bush.

The latter (supporting Bush's funding for combating AIDs in Africa) was bad enough in an anti-Bush, pro-Dem atmosphere (especially considering that, if memory serves, Bush's efforts in Africa are tied to Neocon platforms like abstinence instead of condoms). Even the Republicans name-check Bush as little as possible. But Richardson also stammered twice about needing "more needles." Presumably he was referencing the use of clean needles and/or implementing needle exchange programs but he didn't actually say that. Just "more needles," which made little sense to anyone. And I swear he nearly choked (possibly at the thought of conservative swing voters slipping away) before he said "condoms."

The crowd was deathly silent after Richardson finished speaking. Even Mike Gravel, who answered the question with a diatribe about the War on Drugs, received some polite applause. Subsequently, Richardson slipped back into his old routine of offering meandering answers that frequently went well over his allotted time limit. At one point, Richardson told moderator Tavis Smiley "I'm almost finished" while postulating about tax cuts. Smiley responded, "Yes, you are" and promptly cut Richardson off in favor of a smirking John Edwards. Ouch.

Richardson rebounded from the HIV/AIDs debacle, sort of, with his answers on job outsourcing, tax cuts and Darfur. But he never fully recovered, diminishing what would have otherwise been arguably his best debate performance.

It's no secret that Richardson excels at kissing hands and shaking babies (or whatever). But if The Guv becomes a serious contender, people will start paying attention to what he says on national TV. He can still afford some slip-ups at this stage (I mean, who watches PBS at 7 pm on a Thursday in June?). But he's going to have to clean up his performances quickly if he's going to survive increasing scrutiny in the months to come.

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