Bill Richardson and the Senate Option

The United States Senate is the world’s most exclusive club, but it’s also where presidential ambitions go to die.

And now that New Mexico’s Pete Domenici is retiring after six terms, Bill Richardson has a tough call to make.

Mr. Richardson is running for President, but his campaign is going nowhere. There are several reasons for this. Given the shadow Hillary Clinton has cast over the field from day one, it was always going to difficult for any lesser-known Democrat to break into the top tier, and it became nearly impossible when Barack Obama jumped in last fall and sucked up most of the remaining oxygen. And whatever chance Mr. Richardson, who brought to the race one of the most compelling personal and political biographies ever seen at the presidential level, did have of breaking through he’s ruined with an inarticulate, gaffe-prone style that has left open-minded Democrats scratching their heads and asking, This is the same guy who negotiated with the North Koreans?

But Mr. Domenici’s Senate seat is suddenly available—the 75-year-old Republican announced on Oct. 4 that a progressive brain disorder that causes dementia will force him to stand down in 2008–and Mr. Richardson, who was easily re-elected to a second term as New Mexico’s governor last fall, can probably have the seat if he wants it.

He doesn’t need to decide right away: the filing deadline for the Senate race isn’t until after the first wave of presidential primaries and caucuses next year. So, in theory, Mr. Richardson can win his 11 percent in Iowa, call it a moral victory, then take a beating on February 5 and jump to the Senate race. It’s the perfect golden parachute. And there’s certainly a precedent for it, most recently with Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander, who landed in the Senate in 2002 after George W. Bush outbid them for the G.O.P. presidential nomination in 2000.

But for Mr. Richardson, who is about to turn 60, it would be a much bigger decision than that. And actually, the Dole and Alexander examples are quite relevant to his dilemma. Each of them was advancing in years in ’02 (Mr. Alexander was 62 and Mrs. Dole was 66), and with Mr. Bush seeking re-election in ’04, they both realized they were out of realistic chances of winning the White House. So they took the next best thing available and ran for the Senate.

As Mr. Richardson is doubtless aware, taking the seat would undercut his positioning for another presidential run in ’12 or ‘16. Simply put, senators make terrible presidential candidates, a truism Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Sam Brownback have done their best to reaffirm this year. (Yes, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are also Senators, but they are celebrities first and foremost and have succeeded in spite of their service in the upper house, not because of it.)

More to the point, by launching a Senate campaign next spring, Mr. Richardson would be removing himself from contention for the Number Two slot on his party’s ’08 national ticket—a role that would serve as the perfect stepping-stone a second campaign for the top job.

Mr. Richardson will be term-limited out of the governor’s office in 2010, so the pressure is on to plan his next move, especially since seats in New Mexico seem to open once every generation or two.

The real problem for Mr. Richardson is how disappointing he’s been as a presidential candidate. Had he matched the lofty expectations for his candidacy, he would at least be the “buzz” choice for vice-president, much the way John Edwards was in 2004. And he’d be able to count on a loyal core of supporters to keep his presidential flame burning until the next time the nomination is open.

Instead he’s been a dud.

Senator Richardson, anyone? Bill Richardson and the Senate Option