IOWA FALLS, Iowa—The seminal moment in Bill Richardson's life came shortly before he was born. His father, a headstrong American banker who worked and lived in Mexico City, told his pregnant wife in the fall of 1947 to pack for a brief trip across the U.S. border.
So she gathered a few things and headed north to deliver her baby. In those days, border officials saw nothing unusual about a pregnant Mexican woman wanting to enter Southern California, so she crossed without incident and headed for Pasadena.
That moment, and the delicate balancing that it suggests, began the lifelong conflict that Richardson has had with roots. People read his name or hear his voice, and they think Anglo. People see his mestizo features or listen to him address an audience in fluent Spanish, and they think Latino.
His life has been a straddle of those two worlds. Often it has required negotiation and nuance, but largely Richardson has proved remarkably adaptive and adoptive. He endured being derisively called "Pancho" by classmates at his elite U.S. prep school, but later in life has repeatedly found himself comfortable precisely because people don't always see him in one dimension. He has made an art form of being able to understand what his adversary wanted and using that to get what he wants. He has had side tours to negotiate with dictators, to free hostages, to get a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist out of jail in Darfur.
He is a gun-toting Westerner schooled in the northeast. He is the rare Red Sox fan who can also cheer for the Yankees.
So it is hardly surprising that he chose a career in politics, and employed a style that does not see compromise as a bad thing. In public life, he has had an unbroken string of successes, from Tufts University to Congress to a Cabinet post to the New Mexico Governor's Mansion.
And, more than anything, William Blaine Richardson is trying to persuade Americans that his resume and life experience make him the most qualified candidate to be the next president of the United States.
His heritage makes his candidacy unique, but also creates its own set of burdens. On the stump, Richardson often raises the issue first, such as when he was addressing an all-white audience recently in Iowa Falls: "I'm Bill Richardson, and though I might not look like a Richardson is supposed to look, I'm a Latino," he tells a crowd of 200.
"I want you to know my father was an American," he adds, as though the emphasis is needed.
It is typical of Richardson, posing the uncomfortable question himself, then providing the answer. It's a disarming, self-effacing, even humorous side that has helped his upstart candidacy make its way to the middle of the pack, with hopes that should the leaders falter, voters will turn to him.
Yet Richardson can also be defensive. He has snapped when questioned about this identity, especially by those who disagree with his views on immigration and U.S. relations with Mexico.
Such flashes, though, are rare. Richardson is clearly a candidate at ease in the press-the-flesh, slap-the-back retail politics of Iowa. There is a physicality to him that only seems to help, as if he is ever ready to wrap someone in a huge hug.
He is strapping and 6 foot 3, a former college baseball pitcher with professional potential. He is also portly, and some have even measured the seriousness of his presidential ambitions by the inches he had lost from his ample waistline.
His path to the White House begins in Iowa; a state that's only about 4 percent Latino, and that is just one measure of the hill he must climb if he is to get past his better-known opponents.
Yet he is also a man who in three decades has never lost an election. And his stamina is just one reason. A desire to win, at everything, made it easy for Richardson to shake 13,392 hands one day five years ago, setting a new high mark recorded by Guinness World Records.
There is a decidedly rumpled quality to him. His critics say his appearance is a marker of his lack of discipline. In many of the recent candidate debates, Richardson has seemed almost startled by certain questions and then struggles to condense his responses into the sound bites proving so effective for other contenders.
It is both a blessing and a burden for a man who could hit a baseball from either side of the plate. The ability to see all sides of an argument and sometimes advocate multiple sides has served him well as a skilled negotiator and during his rise to power in Washington, D.C.