A reporter's dream matchup

The liveliest pair of candidates in the large fields of Democratic and Republican long shots, Bill Richardson and Mike Huckabee, are also — not coincidentally — the likeliest to break through into the top ranks of their parties if anyone ever does.

It helps that both of them can boast extensive experience in actually running a government. Huckabee spent a decade as the Republican governor of Arkansas and Richardson is in his second term as the Democratic governor of New Mexico.

They are not the only ones with statehouse experience. Jim Gilmore was the one-term Republican governor of Virginia and Mitt Romney served a single term as the Republican governor of Massachusetts.

But while they are dour and determined, Richardson and Huckabee communicate a good-humored enjoyment of the chase that is as refreshing as it is rare.

In their dreams, political reporters can imagine what a race between those two would be like: two lively, loquacious politicians with strongly opposed viewpoints, but a liking for people — and a promise of a few lighter moments to relieve the tedium and the tensions of a long campaign.

Odds are, it will never happen, even though Americans have tended to prefer governors over senators when it comes to picking a president. That's why no sitting senator has been elected president since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

But Bill Clinton and George Bush, both of whom came straight from the statehouse to the White House, have taken much of the bloom off that particular rose. Huckabee, who hails from Clinton's home town of Hope, and Richardson both built their reputations in relatively small, out-of-the-way places. And as we learned with both Clinton and Bush, mastery of a state legislature does not transfer to mastery of Congress.

Nonetheless, the early going has shown Huckabee and Richardson poking their heads above the others who are striving to break out of the second tier — seven of them on the GOP side, five on the Democratic.

Huckabee has been the source of some of the best lines at the two Republican debates, including his comment that Congress has "spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop."

He is a good-natured fundamentalist, both in his religious values (a Baptist preacher before he entered politics) and in his basic conservatism. But he has an independent streak. He has the guts to call Alberto Gonzales an embarrassment to the administration and, at home, he defied the Legislature in a losing battle to allow the children of illegal aliens, when they graduated from an Arkansas high school, to go to college for the same tuition paid by other residents in the state. And he advocates a radical overhaul of the tax system, abolishing all current federal levies in favor of a retail sales tax with progressive protections for the poor.

Huckabee is hurting for money and still searching for an early-voting state where he can plant his flag. He may never find it, but given the question marks overhanging the three Republican front-runners, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, there could be room for him.

Richardson has a better chance and a clearer strategy in the Democratic race. With his wealth of experience — long service in Congress, ambassador to the United Nations, secretary of energy, diplomatic trouble-shooter — he can match credentials with anyone. He is also the first serious Hispanic candidate for president — a calling card in Nevada alone among the early states, but later of great use in California, Illinois and New York, if he can get that far.

Richardson had an off night at the first Democratic debate but he has starred at other joint appearances, and his open, friendly personality makes him a welcome presence. He seems to be lunging for positions that separate him from the front-runners — for example, pledging unrealistically to remove every single American soldier, Marine and airman from Iraq. But his real problem is that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards would have to stumble to make room for him. Richardson has closed the gap on Edwards in some Iowa and New Hampshire polls, but he still has a long way to catch the other two.

Huckabee and Richardson? Don't bet on it. But it costs nothing to fantasize.

David Broder is a reporter and columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail him at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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