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All politics is local? New Mexico is test

Times Staff Writer

Albuquerque -- Fighting for control of the House, Democrats and Republicans have cast the midterm election in starkly different terms. To Democrats, it is a national referendum on President Bush; to Republicans, a contrast between local candidates.

The outcome Nov. 7 will probably depend on whether those who turn out to vote are more like Anne Campbell or Don Natvig.

Campbell, a 45-year-old nurse, had trouble deciding between Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson and her Democratic opponent, state Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, until she watched them debate last week. Although Campbell is a Democrat, she was impressed with Wilson’s crisp performance and now leans toward the incumbent.

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“I think it needs to be a local election,” Campbell said, loading groceries into the back of her gray minivan at a big-box mall on the north side of town. “I certainly wouldn’t vote against Heather Wilson because of President Bush.”

Natvig, who teaches biology at the University of New Mexico, has met Wilson and believes “she’s an OK person” and “fairly sincere.” But the lanky 54-year-old Democrat plans to vote for Madrid -- even though he’s no big fan. “I don’t want to support the Republican administration,” he said, adding, “I see my vote as being in support of a [Democratic] Congress.”

New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District is high on both parties’ target lists in these final campaign days, as Democrats fight for the 15 seats they need to take over the House. More than $11.5 million has been raised and spent here by the candidates and their allies, a state record, and couch potatoes have been bombarded with more than 11,500 TV spots since July.

The district, which takes in Albuquerque and part of its suburbs, is odd in some ways.

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Although Democrats outnumber Republicans, the GOP has held the congressional seat for its entire existence, nearly 40 years. No incumbent has ever been defeated, not even in the big Democratic elections of 1974 and 1982.

Still, few places are better to watch the fight for control of Congress. The district, at the intersection of Route 66 and the Rio Grande, is home to a liberal college community, conservative military retirees, and social moderates whose defense and high-tech jobs depend on fat Pentagon budgets. About one in three voters is Latino.

Moreover, as they run neck and neck, the two candidates personify the broad strategy of their respective parties.

Consider the first words each uttered in their televised debate.

“Elections are about choices, and the differences between my opponent and I are many,” Republican Wilson said, a line she repeated through the evening. “If you want higher taxes and a weaker national defense, you should vote for Mrs. Madrid.”

“I’m running for Congress because it’s time for a change in this country,” Democrat Madrid responded. “George Bush has been an unmitigated, abject failure, and Heather Wilson has been with him every step of the way.”

A political panorama

The issues and advertisements that have played across this high-desert district offer a panorama of the year in politics. There has been scandal, with cameo mentions of former Reps. Tom DeLay, Randy “Duke” Cunningham and Mark Foley. Stem-cell research, soaring gas prices and rising healthcare costs have been discussed, along with the sway of special interests in Washington and Santa Fe, the state capital.

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But the war in Iraq has dominated the campaign above all and presented the starkest contrast between the two candidates, just as it has in many races across the country.

Wilson has carefully sculpted an image of independence from Bush and GOP leaders in Congress, parting ways at various times on budget, healthcare and ethics issues.

But the Air Force Academy graduate has been unflagging in her support of the war, casting Madrid as inexperienced and dangerously naive when it comes to Iraq and terrorism.

In the debate, Wilson characterized her opponent’s position this way: “Bring the guys home. Quit. Surrender.” Madrid, who favors a withdrawal of U.S. troops but has offered no clear timetable, retorted: “Staying the course is not a plan. Paralysis is not a plan.”

In terms of public opinion, the Democrat would seem to have the upper hand on the issue. An Albuquerque Journal poll published this month found that 52% of New Mexicans thought the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq.

More often than not, they believed the administration cherry-picked and sometimes manipulated intelligence, a charge Madrid has used against Wilson, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Wilson rejects the allegation.

But the poll also found considerable ambivalence about the war -- only 15% supported an immediate withdrawal -- a sentiment that surfaced in a series of voter interviews in the district last week.

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Shanna Chavarria, a 49-year-old homemaker and a Democrat, said she wished the U.S. had not invaded Iraq and was eager “to get us home, get us out.”

But, she went on, “We’re there. I think we need to finish the job.”

She plans to vote for Madrid, however, because Wilson is “just too party-line. Whatever the Republicans did, she did.”

The Bush factor

That strong, almost reflexive anti-GOP sentiment poses the greatest threat to Wilson, a smart and nimble campaigner who has weathered several tough reelection fights since going to Congress in 1998.

She won thanks to strong Democratic and Latino support, but surveys suggest many of those voters are straying this time.

“That’s where Iraq comes in,” said Brian Sanderoff, the state’s leading political pollster. “That’s where Bush comes in.”

With the president at a lackluster 36% approval rating in Albuquerque, Wilson has tried hard to distance herself from Bush and the White House.

She has been hammered for skipping a vote on Iraq this year to attend a presidential fundraiser.

So when strategist Karl Rove came to town in late September, Wilson’s campaign announced she would skip the event, which was closed to reporters. Party officials would not even say where Rove planned to appear.

During last week’s debate, Wilson twice refused to answer when asked whether she though Bush had been a good president.

The next day, at a news conference at her campaign headquarters, Wilson was asked four more times and again would not offer an opinion.

“History will judge,” she said.

The campaign here typifies the broader national contest in other ways.

Both parties have spent millions of dollars on TV spots -- mainly attack ads -- as have labor unions, trial lawyers, Realtors and other interest groups, according to TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group, a national firm that tracks campaign advertising.

The race has been nasty, like so many others in this corrosively negative campaign season.

Madrid calls her opponent a liar and says Wilson, who served on the board overseeing the congressional page program, “looked the other way and didn’t protect our children” from Foley’s behavior. Wilson said she had no way of knowing what the ex-Florida lawmaker was saying in private e-mails.

Wilson says Madrid is “willing to cheat to win” and aired a TV spot accusing Madrid of allowing a man to “walk” after an attempted rape. A state prosecutor said the ad distorted the facts of a case involving a fictitious teen in an Internet chat room.

The two camps even quibbled over who got the better spot in the State Fair parade, and the politics behind their placement.

Campbell, the nurse who leans toward a Wilson vote, said all of it was enough to make a person stay home on election day.

“They’re just awful,” she said of the ads, which are inescapable for anyone watching Albuquerque TV.

“You feel bad about both of them.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

Earlier articles in this series can be found at www.latimes.com/newmexico.


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