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Susana Martinez leads N.M. governors race

1. Doña Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez (R) leads New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D) in the Land of Enchantment's gubernatorial race (D), according to a new survey released over the weekend.

Martinez takes 45 percent to 39 percent for Denish in the poll, which was conducted by Albuquerque-based Research and Polling Inc..

Martinez, a Hispanic woman, has long been touted as a potential star for Republicans on the national stage and the Republican Governors Association helped funnel contributions to her in a competitive June primary.

That Martinez is leading in a state that President Barack Obama carried in 2008 by 15 points in 2008 is indicative of a difficult national environment for Democrats as well as voter fatigue with term limited Gov. Bill Richardson (D).

Richardson's unpopularity appears to be a main factor in Martinez's lead. Only 33 percent approved of Richardson's job performance, and of those who disapproved, only 22 percent said they would vote for Denish while 62 percent said they would back Martinez.

Denish has served under Richardson for the past seven-and-a-half years, and Martinez's camp has sought to tie her to the outgoing governor at every opportunity. Last week, Martinez even went so far as to challenge Richardson, not Denish, to a debate.

Denish's camp responded to the poll by issuing a fundraising email to supporters taking aim at Martinez and highlighting the fact that 16 percent remain of voters remain undecided.

"Polls will go up and down, but New Mexicans are just beginning to learn about Susana Martinez -- and the more we learn, the harder it is to believe what she says," Denish wrote in the letter.

The race is a high priority for both national parties. The Republican Governors Association has been a prime donor to Martinez's campaign, and the Democratic Governors Association went up with a TV ad last week portraying Martinez as an insider who doled out big bonuses to friends, an apparent attempt to chip away at her "outsider" image.

2. Former gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne's campaign for the New Hampshire GOP Senate nomination got a shot in the arm Sunday when the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state's biggest paper and a major voice in conservative circles in the state, endorsed him.

Writing for his paper, publisher Joseph W. McQuaid noted Lamontagne's outsider credentials and called him "just a smart-as-a-whip, honest, hard-working son of New Hampshire who says what he believes."

Lamontagne entered the race as a top threat to the establishment choice in the race, former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. But as businessmen Bill Binnie and Jim Bender have spent millions of their own money on the race, Lamontagne's under-funded grassroots campaign has often been below-the-radar.

The Union Leader endorsement should help build a bit of momentum for the conservative attorney, who under a similar set of circumstances upended the establishment favorite to win the party's nomination in the 1996 governor's race.

Losing out on the endorsement could be considered a setback for Ayotte who has touted her conservative credentials in advance of the Sept. 14 primary. On the other hand, the U-L endorsement of Lamontagne could serve to further fracture the conservative vote, making it difficult for any one of the three men to emerge as the Ayotte alternative.

It's also not clear how much trouble Ayotte is actually in in the primary. Whoever wins will face Rep. Paul Hodes (D) in the fall.

3. In an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (I) staked out some conservative ground on health care reform and gay marriage but continued to dodge questions about which party he might caucus with should he win the Sunshine State's Senate race this fall.

Crist has been campaigning hard for Democratic votes since leaving the Republican Party in late April and has drawn plenty of criticism for changing his positions on certain issues during his Senate campaign.

Last Friday, it looked like health care would be the latest example of a Crist flip-flop -- as in a TV interview he said that he would have supported the Democratic bill that passed this year in Congress. That contrasted his previous statements, and Crist clarified Sunday that he would have opposed the bill and will work to make changes to it if elected to the Senate, even though he opposes outright repeal.

Crist also sided with conservatives on gay marriage, saying he remains in support of a constitutional ban.

Since last Tuesday's primary, both GOP nominee Marco Rubio and Democratic nominee Rep. Kendrick Meek have turned up the heat on Crist's effort to redefine himself politically.

Meek's effort to retain (or perhaps win back) his Democratic base should be bolstered with Crist being forced to assert more conservative positions on issues like gay marriage and health care reform.

One area where Crist stayed to the ideological left was the economic stimulus package -- the issue that initially created a rift between him and the GOP last year.

Crist also refused to say whether he would caucus with either party in the Senate. "This is a moot question unless I win," Crist said Sunday.

4. A new independent poll shows former U.S. District Judge Brian Sandoval (R) with a wide lead Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid (D) in the Nevada gubernatorial race.

Sandoval leads Reid 53 percent to 31 percent among likely voters in the Mason-Dixon poll conducted for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The results also indicate that Democrats face a considerable enthusiasm gap in the race. Sandoval's current 22-point lead among likely voters is narrower than his 16-point lead among registered voters in a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month.

Sandoval's favorability ratings in the latest survey remain high despite Reid's attacks against him on the television airwaves and on the campaign trail: forty eight percent of likely voters viewed Sandoval favorably, while 17 percent viewed him unfavorably. By contrast, Reid was viewed favorably by only 27 percent and unfavorably by 43 percent.

The gubernatorial hopefuls faced off Sunday night in their first official head-to-head debate. (Earlier this month, Reid surprised Sandoval by challenging him to an on-the-spot debate at a forum where they were both slated to speak separately.)

Reid said that Sandoval was a "nice man, but he's a weak leader."

Reid contended that Sandoval's position on education was "not consistent" and added that his opponent supports Nevada Republican Senatorial nominee Sharron Angle, "who would abolish the Department of Education."

Sandoval shot back that Reid's plan would include "a dramatic cut in education." He also charged that Reid had misled Nevadans about his plan. "Nowhere, nowhere in my plan does it call for the layoff of a single teacher," Sandoval said.

Reid appears to be struggling under the weight of his famous last name -- his father, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) is also up for re-election -- and the state's struggling economy.

5. West Virginia and Louisiana staged their primaries on Saturday night with few surprises.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) and businessman John Raese (R) each won convincingly and will face off in a November special election for the remaining two years of the late Sen. Robert Byrd's (D) term.

Ditto Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) and Rep. Charlie Melancon (D). Vitter, who has acknowledged involvement in the "D.C. Madam" prostitution ring, was on the ballot for the first time since that 2007 revelation but crushed former Louisiana state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor by 81 points. Melancon has already begun to make Vitter's personal life an issue in the general election campaign.

In House races, national Democrats got their preferred candidate -- state Rep. Cedric Richmond -- to take on Louisiana Rep. Joseph Cao (R) in the 2nd district, a top pickup opportunity for the party. Meanwhile, in Louisiana's 3rd district, attorney Jeff Landry nearly won a majority of the votes in his Republican primary fight against former state House Speaker Hunt Downer. Because Landry fell just short of the 50 percent mark, the two will face off again on Oct. 2. The seat, which Melancon currently holds, has effectively been ceded to the GOP by Democrats.

With Felicia Sonmez and Aaron Blake

By Chris Cillizza  | August 30, 2010; 7:24 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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