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GOP Divide on Display in New Mexico

For all the attention focused on how the Obama-Clinton fight has split the Democratic party and on how Republicans have unified behind Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as their nominee, there remains a significant split between moderates and conservatives on the GOP side of the aisle. And it's on display today in the New Mexico Senate primary.

Capitol Briefing has sung New Mexico's praises before, not just for its breathtaking scenery and tasty cuisine but also for its fascinating, microcosmic politics. While there are plenty of interesting subplots in the Land of Enchantment this year, the Senate GOP primary contest between Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson takes top billing, with Pearce a devout conservative and Wilson a moderate on most issues.

The latest SurveyUSA poll shows the contest for retiring Sen. Pete Domenici's (R) seat essentially tied, with Pearce leading 48-47. "Among conservatives, Pearce leads by 13; among moderates, Wilson leads by 31," reports SurveyUSA. The gender gap has narrowed, but Wilson has generally been ahead among women, Pearce among men. Wilson's 1st district seat, based in Albuquerque, is urban and cosmopolitan. Pearce's 2nd district, which covers the entire southern half of the state, is far more rural. Wilson has won re-election to the House by attracting the votes of Democrats, while Pearce has mostly focused on his GOP base.

Pearce has focused his campaign and its tough rhetoric on the argument that he is the "real conservative" in the race on issues ranging from abortion to border enforcement, and the conservative group Club for Growth has spent several hundred thousands of dollars on ads attacking Wilson. But will the "real conservative" be the best candidate to square off against Democratic Rep. Tom Udall in November? Last week, Domenici made a late endorsement announcement, backing Wilson over Pearce, perhaps because he thinks she'd be a better general election candidate.

Whichever Republican wins today, he or she is definitely going to need the help of the entire party -- not just moderates or conservatives -- to win in November. That same SurveyUSA poll showed Udall beating Pearce by 25 points, and Wilson by 24. Republicans at the national level have mostly decided to put aside their misgivings to unify behind McCain; the party can only hope a similar display of unity springs forth after today in New Mexico. Otherwise, Pearce and Wilson can both continue their sniping from the private sector, while Udall goes to the Senate.

By Ben Pershing  |  June 3, 2008; 4:42 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign  
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