New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is quickly emerging in the race for the White House as both the most liberal top Democrat when it comes to Iraq and education and the most conservative when it comes to gun rights and taxes.
"There are two ways to be a centrist. One way is to cut the baby in half on every issue. The other is to be quite liberal on some issues and quite conservative on others," said Garry South, a California-based Democratic strategist who sees Richardson falling into the second category. "He's being what you would expect a Western governor of a Rocky Mountain state would be. I don't think it's political posturing."
On Iraq, Richardson has stood apart from his top rivals in calling for a swift and complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"We have different positions here," Richardson said Sunday at a Democratic debate moderated by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. "I believe that if you leave any residual forces, then none of the peace that we are trying to bring can happen."
Asked to evaluate the significance of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., agreeing with Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., on the need for an ongoing U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Richardson told ABCNEWS.com, "The significance is that they all disagree with me. I've been trying to differentiate myself and I finally succeeded, and I believe the public is with me and sound strategy is with me."
Going forward, Richardson plans to use the Clinton and Obama statements from the debate to paint the Top 2 Democrats as standing against "real change" in Iraq. "I'm going to point out our differences, yeah," said Richardson. "I think to really end this war, you've got to adopt my plan of removing all U.S. troops."
While Clinton and Obama foresee a four-pronged ongoing mission for U.S. troops in Iraq which includes (1) preventing al Qaeda from gaining a staging ground, (2) looking after the treatment of the Kurds, (3) guarding against Iranian influence and (4) training Iraqi troops, Richardson thinks those tasks are best performed by others.
"You can't have stability" with "any American troops there," Richardson said at the debate.
Rather than maintaining a U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Richardson is hoping to persuade the United Nations to send an all-Muslim peacekeeping force to the war-torn country. He also hopes that Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iran and Syria can be brought into the reconciliation process once U.S. troops leave Iraq.
The only U.S. troops he would leave in Iraq would protect the U.S. Embassy.
"What is needed here," Richardson said at the debate, "is stability, and I think that all of these countries can be invested in a plan for stability."
As for the threat to Iraq posed by al Qaeda, Richardson believes the jihadist group's influence will be checked by Iraqis.
"My point is that by taking them all out, all our troops are no longer targets," Richardson said. "And then al Qaeda and the insurgents, both that see American troops as their prey, will now turn on each other."
Richardson also stands to the left of top Democrats on education. While his rivals would like to see minor adjustments and more funding to "No Child Left Behind," Richardson would junk the education measure signed into law by President Bush in 2001.
"I also have a one-point plan, like I do on Iraq, on 'No Child Left Behind,'" said Richardson at Sunday's debate. "Scrap it. It's a mess. It's a disaster."