The Touchy-Feely Democratic Candidate -- New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson

"He pinches my neck. He touches my hip, my thigh, sort of the side of my leg."

He's an overweight, whipsmart, popular and charismatic Democratic governor from a Southern State who is running for president-- and is dogged by rumors of sexual misconduct. Bill Clinton redux? Nope. It's New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who was named last week by New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks as "the candidate most likely to rise."

Here's more of Brooks' praise from his column:

So there I was, sitting in my office, quietly contemplating suicide. I was watching a cattle call of Democratic presidential candidates on C-SPAN.

Then Bill Richardson walked onstage. He was dressed differently - in slacks and a sports jacket. He told jokes that didn't seem repeated for the 5,000th time. He seemed recognizably human, unlike some of his overpolished peers. He gave the best presentation, by far.

When you think that way, it becomes absurdly easy to picture him rising toward the top. He is, after all, the most experienced person running for president. He served in Congress for 14 years. He was the energy secretary

He's a successful two-term governor who was re-elected with 69 percent of the vote in New Mexico, a red state. Moreover, he's a governor with foreign policy experience. He was U.N. ambassador.

He's a reporters' favorite - candid, accessible and fun to be around. "I'm a real person, not canned. I don't have a whole bunch of advisers. I'm a little overweight, though I'm trying to dress better," he told me last week. So far, rumors of personal peccadilloes are unfounded.

But the sly way Brooks phrased that last line perhaps suggests the opposite is true, that these "rumors of personal peccadilloes" just might be factual, and will one day be used against the Hispanic governor by his play-to-win rivals. One can't expect the Clinton camp to sit on this information if he becomes a viable theat. Should Richardson become the Democratic nominee, the GOP hit squad will have plenty of ammo.

Since Brooks was being deliberately vague or suggestive, I tracked down the original news story that might come back to haunt Richardson.

According to a story published two years ago in the Albuquerque Journal newspaper, New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish made some unfortunate remarks about Gov. Bill Richardson touching her.

The article, headlined "Hands-On Governor," quotes Denish describing Richardson touching her at public events. It also notes how the governor has greeted people with bear hugs or head butts, For his part, Richardson said he's just being playful. "I tease Diane. I touch guys. It's my way of lessening tension," Richardson said in the story.

"He pokes me," Denish said when confronted about photos taken of Richardson and her at an appearance in Bernalillo. "He pinches my neck. He touches my hip, my thigh, sort of the side of my leg."

While Denish later backtracked from some of these published comments, it's the kind of politics-and-sex story that definitely has legs, especially on the Web where rumor and fact co-mingle with vicious, reckless abandon. Could this be a Swiftboat-meets-Monica drama in the making? Will Drudge strike the match and turn all this into a media bonfire?

This article is cross-linked with www.politixxx.com where you can see a photo of Bill and Diane together.