Richardson Differentiates Himself From Democratic Pack

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, "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."

Withdraw Troops From Iraq

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."

Scrap 'No Child Left Behind'

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."

After the debate, Richardson told, "There is a value in having testing, but it shouldn't be one-size-fits-all testing. There should be testing that involves the community, the schools. Santa Fe is not the same as Des Moines, Iowa."

While Obama has expressed interest in using the collective bargaining process to develop "merit pay" structures for teachers, Richardson has flatly rejected merit pay and promised to lift teachers' salaries across the board from the current national average of $29,564.

"You asked the question, 'Are we for merit pay for teachers?'" Richardson said at Sunday's debate. "No, I'm not for it. But what we need to do is pay our teachers better. They are disrespected. I have proposed a minimum wage for our teachers: $40,000 per year."

Tacking to the Right on Guns and Taxes

While Richardson stands to the left of his top rivals on Iraq and education, he has won plaudits from conservatives on guns and taxes.

Speaking to the nation's firefighters union March 14, Richardson said, "Everywhere I go, I say to my staff, 'Should I say this?' And they say, 'No, don't say it.' Well, I'm going to say it here. I believe I'm the only Democratic candidate that is pro-gun, pro-owners' rights, pro-Second Amendment."

Though Richardson faced some criticism after the Virginia Tech killings for endorsing an end to the gun-show loophole, his support for a concealed handgun law in New Mexico and his A rating from the National Rifle Association as governor still make him the most gun-friendly Democrat in the 2008 race.

On the tax front, Richardson has been hailed by financial publications that are hostile to most Democrats for spurring growth through lower taxes.

"Since winning the state house in 2002," wrote The Wall Street Journal's editorial board in 2006, "he has cut the state's top income tax rate to 4.9 percent from 8.2 percent and cut the capital gains tax in half."

Last month, Barron's called Richardson "hands down" the best Democrat on stocks, bonds and the economy and praised him for wanting to keep the 15 percent tax rate on capital gains established by Bush.

Richardson's claim to be a "pro-growth Democrat" has earned him criticism.

In May, while Richardson spoke to Google employees in California, one of the company's staffers told Richardson that he was smearing other Democrats and adopting a "right-wing frame," according to The New York Sun. (LINK)

But despite the misgivings of some on the left, campaign strategist South thinks Richardson's hybrid appeal holds potential.

"Historically, Democratic candidates who have been successful have exhibited to the voters a conservative side to themselves," said South. "Jimmy Carter did it. Bill Clinton certainly did it. Al Gore and John Kerry didn't particularly do it very well. It is, in a sense, a proven formula in American politics."

South cautioned, however, that Richardson has to do exceptionally well in the early nominating states in order to have a chance against his better-funded rivals.

As of June 30, Richardson's $7 million in the bank trailed former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who had $13 million; Obama, who had $36 million; and Clinton, who had $45 million.

"It's not enough to stand up in debates and talk about it. You need a full media campaign to tell people about your positions," said South. "He's got to show well to keep him going, and if he doesn't, then he's gone."

ABC News' Tahman Bradley and Leigh Hartman contributed to this report.