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Entire NM House Delegation Seeks Senate Seat

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A self-styled common-sense conservative, another candidate claiming to be the only true, conservative in the race and another who is the heir to a political dynasty are facing off in a hard-charging political contest.

While that may sound a lot like a recent story line in the presidential campaign, it's also a sketch of the battle playing out in New Mexico for the seat that comes open at the end of this year with the retirement of Senator Domenici, a Republican.

The two Republican contenders, Heather Wilson and Stevan Pearce, and the Democratic hopeful, Thomas Udall, make up New Mexico's entire House delegation in Washington.

Ms. Wilson, a five-term congresswoman known for her work on national security and the House intelligence panel, is locked in a tough fight with Mr. Pearce, a three-term House member with a staunchly conservative record on economic and social issues, as a June 3 primary approaches.

"This is one of those primaries that I think the Republicans wish they could have avoided," an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Jennifer Duffy, said. "It doesn't really help them in a race that's going to be hard in the fall."

Ms. Duffy and other observers consider New Mexico the Democrats' second-best prospect to pick up a Senate seat this year, ranking just behind Virginia.

Public polling in the state is scarce, making it difficult to gauge which of the Republicans has the upper hand. A SurveyUSA poll taken in November found Ms. Wilson leading Mr. Pearce, 56% to 37%, among likely Republican primary voters, and Mr. Udall favored over either Republican by about 15%. A poll of registered voters taken in January by New Mexico State University found Mr. Udall leading both Republican candidates by margins of more than 20%.

Ms. Wilson has a fund-raising advantage over her Republican opponent, and has the support of establishment figures such as Vice President Cheney. Mr. Pearce has the backing of many in the party's conservative ranks, as well as an anti-tax group, the Club for Growth, which is known to aid its favorites by spending heavily on combative television ads.

At a convention of about 600 Republicans in the state in February, Mr. Pearce beat Ms. Wilson, 55% to 45%, winning the lead spot on the June ballot. Such gatherings tend to draw the most committed party faithful, and thus are an imperfect measure of who will win the primary.

"I'm running as a commonsense conservative and New Mexico has a long history of support for common-sense conservatives," Ms. Wilson told The New York Sun. She complained that Mr. Pearce is so committed to cutting the federal budget that he opposed increasing the Border Patrol and supported legislation to make major cuts to New Mexico's nuclear laboratories.

Asked if Mr. Pearce is hostile to government, she said, "I think so. … He votes pretty consistently against government spending even when it makes sense."

Mr. Pearce, 60, contends that waste is rampant in the federal government, including the Border Patrol. "They are squandering money at an alarming rate," he said.

Mr. Pearce even takes the position that too much money is being spent on airport security. "We have checking shoes at airports, 55,000 agents," he said. "TSA has soaked up a tremendous number of dollars and can't account for them."

The Vietnam veteran and owner of a small oil-services company argued that his position against taxes can win over conservative Democrats, and that his stance against abortion rights can make inroads with Latino voters.

Ms. Wilson said she is "pro-life" and favors lower taxes, but has demonstrated electability.

"We need to win this Senate seat and I've shown the ability to win where it is tough to win. This is not a safe seat. This will be a battle," she said.

She won re-election in a squeaker in her moderate, Albuquerque based district in 2006, prevailing by just 875 votes out of about 190,000 cast.

The Democratic candidate, Thomas Udall, 59, is the son of Stewart Udall and the nephew of Mo Udall, both of whom were congressmen from Arizona. The New Mexico candidate is a first cousin of Mark Udall, who is seeking a Senate seat from Colorado, and a more distant cousin of Senator Smith of Oregon.

"Not a day goes by I don't run into someone who says they remember my father or my uncle," Thomas Udall said in an interview. He said he's proud of his family ties but doesn't want to "trade on" them.

A five-term House member and former New Mexico attorney general, Mr. Udall said he plans to campaign on his vote against the Iraq war and against the Patriot Act. "On these issues and almost every other issues, Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson are in lockstep with the Bush administration," Mr. Udall said.

One special challenge facing Ms. Wilson, who served in the Air Force and on the National Security Council of President George H.W. Bush, is her connection to the imbroglio surrounding the firing of several U.S. attorneys by President George W. Bush in 2006. She has acknowledged contacting one of the prosecutors who was later dismissed, David Iglesias, about the status of a corruption probe believed to be focusing on Democrats.

Ms. Wilson seems to have played a far more minor role in the saga than Mr. Domenici, who actively lobbied for the firing of Mr. Iglesias. However, the affair got major press attention in New Mexico and will get more as the dismissed prosecutor prepares to promote a new book about the episode. "It will be used by the Democrats against the Republican, whoever that is, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Pearce use it against Wilson," Ms. Duffy said.

Whoever wins the Senate seat, a major makeover in New Mexico's House delegation is guaranteed, as candidates are not permitted to run simultaneously for House and Senate seats.

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