All this year, three well-known presidential candidates have led in public opinion polls among likely voters in the Democratic Party. Yet there is a tradition in the U.S. of a so-called "dark horse" candidate emerging to challenge for a party's nomination. This year, the one considered most likely to catch fire among Democrats is Bill Richardson. He is the governor of a western state, but is not well known among voters nationally. Still, experts say he may be the Democratic candidate who is most qualified for the job. VOA's Jim Fry profiles the governor and former ambassador.

Even before he formally announced for president in May, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson [administrator of a western U.S. state] acknowledged his candidacy was a long shot. But he put on the hard sell for his political party.

Richardson said, "I'm a westerner. This is a new area that is fertile for the Democratic Party."

"He is unbeatable. It is amazing the Democrats haven't recognized that," says political scientist Larry Sabato. He says Richardson would make a formidable nominee in the November 2008 general election. Sabato says not only is he a proven winner in a western state, but his Hispanic roots appeal to an interest group that has growing electoral strength.

Bill Richardson was born in the United States, but his father is from Nicaragua and his mother from Mexico. "When I was growing up, I didn't know whether I was an American or a Mexican. I would dream in Spanish. I would occasionally think in English," he said.

He was elected to Congress in 1980, at one point returning to an ovation from members of both parties after one of his diplomatic coups. Richardson - as a special envoy - secured the release of hostages in several countries including North Korea and Iraq during and after serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.

In the late 1990s Richardson became secretary of energy under a Democratic president.

Sabato directs the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and adds, "Republicans will tell you privately that if the Democrats nominate Bill Richardson the election is over. They know they will lose to Bill Richardson. He is perfectly positioned."

In taking positions on issues, Richardson has not entirely adopted either party's dogma. For example, his support of gun ownership rights appeals to western conservatives who often vote Republican. Yet, on the presence of American troops in Iraq, he has adopted the stance of his own party's left-wing core of support.

He explains, "We've got, right now, 160,000 troops. And that includes the 30,000 extra with the surge [reinforcements ordered into Iraq in January 2007]. I would pull them all out."

Richardson has campaigned aggressively in Iowa, the state that traditionally weighs in first in the presidential primary season. Yet he is mired in fourth place in the most recent opinion polls here.

Stuart Rothenberg tracks national politics as the founder of a prominent national political newsletter. He comments, "His problem is there is no obvious opening right now in the Democratic contest. Eighty-five percent of the Democrats say they're content with the field."

Senator Hillary Clinton of New York leads most polls of likely voters in Democratic Party primary elections. Senator Barak Obama of Illinois runs second. If either one falters, political experts say former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina is in a good position to move up from third place.

Richardson has acknowledged he needs to finish better than experts predict in an early voting state. Democrats in Nevada will be the first in a western state to make their selection. Richardson says it is an important state. "I consider Nevada a critically important state."

Rothenberg says, "He needs a win somewhere. He needs to impress. He's making some ground up in Iowa but it's still a long shot even if he were to win Nevada."

Bill Richardson, the Democrat's western dark horse, has just over two months before that first important test, now scheduled in Iowa on January 3.