Richardson first presidential candidate to visit tiny New Hampshire town

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MARLOW, N.H. (AP) – In October 1912, residents lined the streets of this tiny town to catch a glimpse of President William Howard Taft as he passed through on his way to Keene, only to learn later that he took a wrong turn and went another way.

That was the closest Marlow – population 800 – came to seeing a presidential candidate until Thursday, when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson greeted about 100 voters in an old church that now houses the town library historical society.

“He was the big guy, wasn’t he?” Richardson said of Taft. “Maybe there’s a similarity there.”

Gen Ells, who has lived in Marlow for more than 25 years, wasn’t about to pass up her chance to grill the candidate. Sitting in the front row, she came prepared with three questions and rattled them off nearly all in one breath.

“You’ve never mentioned the words illegal immigration, and I wonder why since your state happens to be at the forefront?” she said, following up with a question on Richardson’s plans to remove troops from Iraq. Finally, she noted that most Americans think the political system is broken.

“What makes you think you are the best man for the job and what will you do to bring sanity to Washington?” she asked.

Richardson told Ells that he hadn’t mentioned immigration because he expected someone would ask him about it. He called for doubling the number of border agents and said he supported the immigration reform plan that recently failed in Congress that would have allowed millions of illegal aliens to become legal over a period of years if they met strict requirements.

“Is that amnesty? No, because it could take you nine years to get a green card,” he said.

He said another key to reducing illegal immigration would be strongly urging Mexico’s leaders to provide better jobs for their people.

“Do something for your people,” he implored a woman he pulled up on stage to play the role of Mexico’s president. “It’s called speaking frankly to friends.”

He explained his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within six months while using diplomacy to help the country’s ethnic groups divide oil revenues and figure out a way to maintain stability. He also said he would make sure Iraq’s neighbors realize they have a stake in ensuring the country remains stable.

Addressing the broader question of “Why you?”, Richardson emphasized his experience as governor and former energy secretary and ambassador. Though he lags far behind rivals Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in fundraising, Richardson has been moving up in New Hampshire polls.

“We shouldn’t decide on a candidate because of the most money or most celebrity or biggest political legacy,” he said. “You know, I worked with President Clinton, I’m very proud of him. But I feel I’m running against two giants – the president and his wife. And my point is I think we should make this decision based on qualifications, and a plan for this country not on who can raise the most money.”

Richardson’s rise in the poll followed the launch of several television ads in which he spoofs his second-tier status in the race despite his extensive resume. The ads caught the attention of at least Marlow voter, though perhaps weren’t enough to win his vote.

“I like your commercials and all that, but the big issue around here is the Second Amendment and gun rights,” said one man who leapt to his feet as soon as Richardson finished his stump speech. “I’d like to know how you feel about that.”

Richardson said he supports the Second Amendment but believes instant background checks are necessary to prevent two key groups of people from getting guns – criminals and the mentally ill.

Ells said later she was impressed with Richardson’s answers to her questions and would “certainly consider” voting for him.

“He was engaged and he didn’t shy away from anything,” she said.

AP-ES-07-05-07 1827EDT

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