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2008 Ground Zero: New Mexico

The current focus of the presidential race is on Pennsylvania, but if Capitol Briefing could pick just one state to cover up and down the ballot until November, it would be New Mexico.

Why the Land of Enchantment? Start with a high-profile Senate race, three open-seat House contests, a presidential battleground, a unique demographic profile and an eclectic mix of hot-button issues. Throw in beautiful scenery and great food, and you've got an El Dorado for election junkies. Let's look at what's in store:

A High-Profile Senate Race. Sen. Pete Domenici's (R) decision not to run for re-election after six terms has spawned what will surely be one of the marquee races of the cycle. Rep. Tom Udall is unopposed for the Democratic nomination and will be a formidable, well-funded candidate this fall.

On the GOP side, two veteran House members -- Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson -- are locked in one of the best primary fights in the country. The matchup is a study in contrasts. Pearce is a conservative former owner of an oil field services company who currently represents the 2nd district, a massive, mostly rural seat that covers the southern part of the state. Wilson is a moderate Air Force Academy graduate best-known for her past service on the National Security Council. She represents the more urban Albuquerque-based 1st district.

Polls have shown Udall handily leading both GOP candidates in a general election contest, though the race will likely tighten after a Republican nominee is chosen in the June 3 primary. All three candidates are well-funded. As of Dec. 31, Udall had $1.7 million in the bank, while Wilson had $1.1 million and Pearce had $820,000.

Three Open-Seat House Contests. The field running to replace Domenici means that all three of New Mexico's House seats are open. All feature contested party primaries, and at least two of them could be competitive in the fall.

In Wilson's seat, Bernalillo County Sherriff Darren White (R) looks likely to face former Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich (D) in November, though Heinrich will first have to beat ex-state health secretary Michelle Lujan Grisham in the Democratic primary.

Wilson has been a perennial target for Democrats -- she won re-election in 2006 by fewer than 900 votes -- and the seat gets even more competitive now that she's leaving it. Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Al Gore carried the district in 2004 and 2000, respectively. But White is popular and well-funded, so the GOP won't surrender this seat without a fight.

Pearce's district is a little more likely to stay in the red column, though there is a heated Republican primary race to replace him. Retired banker Aubrey Dunn, Sierra County GOP Chairman C. Earl Greer and steakhouse owner Ed Tinsley will all be on the Republican primary ballot. On the Democratic side, Dona Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley is squaring off against ex-Lea County Commissioner Harry Teague.

President Bush won the 2nd district by 17 points in 2004, though national Democrats hope that the right candidate can make the seat more competitive.

Udall's Santa-Fe based 1st district looks likely to stay Democratic, though the party primary has featured a good fight between state Public Regulation Commission member Ben Ray Lujan and developer Don Wiviott. Lujan edged out Wiviott at the district's recent pre-primary convention, but Wiviott is wealthy and had already lent his campaign more than $300,000 through Dec. 31. The Republican primary contest is between contractor Dan East and attorney Marco Gonzalez.

A Presidential Battleground. Forget Florida and Ohio; New Mexico has been making a case for itself as perhaps the tightest presidential state in the country. Bush beat Kerry there in 2004 by just 6,000 votes, while Gore trumped Bush in 2000 by a measly 365 votes.

That trend has continued on the party level. Hillary Rodham Clinton beat Barack Obama in the Feb. 5 Democratic caucus 49 percent to 48 percent, and only after state party officials spent nine days tallying the results. The Republican primary is June 3, and John McCain obviously already has the GOP nod wrapped up.

Looking ahead to November, Democrats appear to have the wind at their backs on a national level, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), himself a former White House hopeful, will surely work overtime to help the Democratic nominee. But McCain hails from neighboring Arizona and knows this state and its issues well. And a usual source of Democrats' strength in New Mexico -- the large Latino vote -- could be diluted by McCain's popularity among Hispanic voters, particularly for his advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform.

People and Issues. In addition to its large Latino population, pegged at 42 percent by the 2000 Census, New Mexico is also 9 percent Native American. So immigration and tribal issues are obviously relevant.

The state also has several military installations and has a large population of veterans. It has cosmopolitan cities like Santa Fe and Albuquerque, plus massive stretches of undeveloped land, interspersed with oil wells, gem mines and cattle ranches. So the state has an unusual mix of urban, suburban, exurban and rural voters.

Food and Scenery. With white sands and red rocks, New Mexico is a beautiful state to visit. And when Capitol Briefing had the pleasure of covering a Congressional race in the state in 2002, he fell in love with the cuisine, particularly anything involving green chile sauce. Campaign reporters who grew accustomed to the grub in Iowa and New Hampshire will surely find the food here to be a revelation (if you're in Las Cruces, try this place and thank Capitol Briefing -- or bring him a burrito -- later).

By Ben Pershing  |  March 19, 2008; 1:53 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign  
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Wilson is a "moderate"? Do you also describe George Bush as "Lincolnesque"?

Posted by: 12Quarts | March 19, 2008 8:01 PM | Report abuse

If Udall can win the senate seat and dems can win at least two of the house seats, then this would be a wonderful turn of events. McCain would have a good chance of carrying NM if he wasn't so supportive of the Iraq war. Regardless of immigration, the war and crappy economy will be the downfall for him and most of his republican cohorts.

Posted by: NM-Dem | March 19, 2008 10:15 PM | Report abuse

2008 Presidential Election Weekly Poll
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Posted by: votenic | March 19, 2008 11:22 PM | Report abuse

I am a native of New Mexico, a former Republican who is now an avid Democrat and a resident of Cleveland, OH. I also worked on Capitol Hill for Domenici during his first term. While I greatly admire the man, I couldn't vote for him now. But I respect him greatly. He has served the state with honor and distinction, and after six terms, isn't worth a whole lot more in terms of personal finances than he was worth when he was first elected. That kind of single-minded attention to their duties and the needs of their constituents among Congressional representatives is, sadly, quite rare.

As for the current state of affairs: I love it! It's almost more entertaining than Ohio, my home for the last 6 years. Here's hoping Udall wins decisively and that Albuquerque is finally, finally represented by a Democrat come January.

Posted by: Jon Thompson | March 20, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

As another native New Mexican, I have to say that it's about danged time. Heather Wilson never belonged in that seat, and wouldn't have had it without Domenici.

(By the way, "Udall's Santa-Fe based 1st district," should be the 3d district. And it's just "green chile"--"sauce" is for Texans or French people.)

Posted by: Jeremy | March 21, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

For those who want to follow NM politics, here are three good blogs:

Posted by: dotellen | March 21, 2008 12:51 PM | Report abuse

If Obama is the Democratic choice for President

I will VOTE straight REPUBLICAN

Posted by: wakeupamerica | March 21, 2008 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Bill Richardson sold his soul. He disrespected the Spanish Americans who made him and gave him all that he has. They will now be his downfall.

Posted by: sienna | March 23, 2008 12:31 AM | Report abuse

I am a New Mexican native that moved to WDC and never looked back. Because of the narrow minded thinking ways of some people. Take for instance the two comments made by "wakeupamerica" and "sienna"! This is the 21st century!

Posted by: calvie | March 24, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, but what is kimerikas?


Posted by: sweeta-yb | March 25, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, but what is kimerikas?


Posted by: sweeta-yb | March 25, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, but what is kimerikas?


Posted by: sweeta-yb | March 25, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

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