Bill Richardson, left, with Tom and Jeanette Hansen of rural Decorah. (Photo by Sarah Strandberg)
Bill Richardson, left, with Tom and Jeanette Hansen of rural Decorah. (Photo by Sarah Strandberg)

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson engaged a group of about 120 people in Decorah Tuesday afternoon with self-deprecating humor and a no-nonsense style.

"Obama is an attractive candidate because he represents change, a new voice. Clinton says she has experience. With me, you get both. I certainly have experience and I know how to get things done. Change is doing something about energy, bringing people together internationally .. I'm not the blow-dried candidate that's going to tell you all the right things," said Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a former UN Ambassador, U.S. secretary of energy and congressman.

The candidate outlined his plan of attack if elected president before taking questions from his audience.

"Within six months, I would bring all of our troops home from Iraq," he said.

Richardson said he has a plan for bringing the troops home - reconciliation of Iraq's Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites to form a coalition government that would share power and oil revenues. He also suggested an Arab peace- keeping force be brought in.

"We can do this with diplomacy. Our kids are getting killed at an alarming rate. The last 90 days have been the deadliest. They have a civil war ... the $450 billion spent on the war should be spent in America on our people," he said.

Another priority for Richardson would be education.

"I'm worried. We are no longer No. 1 in science and math -- we're 29th," he said.

Richardson said he would refocus and revitalize education and "scrap" the federal No Child Left Behind policy.

"It doesn't work," he said.

Teachers are "mistreated," according to Richardson, and their starting salary should be raised to $40,000.

"Who were the most important people in your life beside your parents? We need to value teachers so much more," he said.

For college graduates struggling to pay off their student loans, Richardson offered his solution -- a program of national service. For a year's worth of service, the government would help pay off those loans, he said.

Health care

Richardson said the country should provide universal health care to everyone, noting every citizen should be eligible for the same health-care plan members of Congress have.

Richardson noted the nation's $2.2 trillion health-care system spends 31 percent of the budget on administration, not direct care.

"We need a plan that shifts that 31 percent to direct care," he said.

Priorities need to change, he said.

"We spend $6 billion on cancer research - that's two weeks of the Iraq war. We wonder why we don't find a cure," he said.

Richardson said veterans shouldn't have to travel to VA hospitals for treatment. He proposed a "heroes health-care card" that would allow them to receive treatment anywhere. He said servicemen and women returning from Iraq are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and aren't receiving the treatment they need.

"Mental health deserves and should have parity," he said.

Richardson said his experience as governor would help him improve the country's economy.

"My state used to be one of the poorest in the union and five years later, it's one of the fastest growing economies."

New Mexico offered tax incentives to help promote growth, he explained.

Richardson said the country needs to invest in the areas of science, technology and biofuels

Richardson also called for a constitutional amendment that would require the country to have a balanced budget.

As a former U.S. secretary of energy, Richardson said he believes strongly in shifting to renewable resources, lessening dependence on foreign oil.

Richardson advocates a 50 percent reduction on foreign oil in 10 years, reducing greenhouse gas omissions 30 percent by 2020 and a "massive shift" to solar and wind power.

"We all have to pull together. Our national security is threatened and we're polluting the planet," he said. "When it comes to energy independence, everyone has to sacrifice a little."

"Al Gore is right ... I hope he stays out of the race. I just passed Al Gore (in the polls) and he's not even in the race," Richardson joked.

Richardson vowed to follow the constitution of the U.S., not go to war unless he has the consent of Congress and respect a woman's right to choose, adding that he would do everything he could to stop unwanted pregnancies and promote adoption.

Impressed

Although he's still undecided on who we'll vote for, Ron Gesme of Decorah said he was impressed with Richardson.

"He has a good sense of humor and I agree with a lot of his ideas," said Gesme, a retired English and American history teacher, and coach.

"He could be a strong candidate if he had the money. He's a straight shooter on what his ideas are and how he comes across to people," Gesme said.