New Mexico's political tug of war

The battle for Southwest political supremacy is being fiercely waged here along the Rio Grande, a green-banked ribbon crossing New Mexico's brush and desert plateaus.

The two major forces in 1982 are the GOP's uncanny ability to make the most of political openings and persistent Democratic voter majorities.

Both sides are trying to take advantage of a third force - Southwest conservatism, which has found in Ronald Reagan a convenient symbol as familiar as the tumbleweeds that trace the wind through cities like Albuquerque and remote valley hamlets.

The Republicans here have not backed away from their support of Reagan ideals - particularly greater defense spending. The Democrats attack Interior Secretary James Watt as a GOP regressive symbol more than the President. They say they see the start of a moderate Democratic trend in the Southwest.

The Democratic National Committee has targeted New Mexico for a special party modernization experiment. The committee has sent campaign strategists and sponsored statewide polls. On Oct. 4, Democratic phone banks started seeking voter support statewide.

But the Democrats still seem to be more than this one election away from matching GOP aggressiveness and sophistication in politics. ''The Democratic Party has been struggling to enter the 20th century,'' says Chris Garcia, a University of New Mexico political scientist and director of an election polling firm. ''The old politics works well at the local level, but not in the statewide races.''

New Mexico Democrats have assembled one of their best statewide tickets in years - young, experienced, and with a united state-party leadership. They say they represent a new wave in the Southwest - Democrats who can stop the GOP Sunbelt surge.

The defeat of conservative GOP Sen. Harrison Schmitt - the former astronaut, more broadly approved than deeply liked in New Mexico - by Attorney General Jeff Bingaman, a Harvard and Stanford man of moderate political caste, would be read outside New Mexico as a rebuff to the Reagan forces.

The lesser known Mr. Bingaman is expected to close the gap on Senator Schmitt. Schmitt has just launched a campaign of slashing ads that name Bingaman five times - paradoxically assisting the Democrat where he needs the most help, in name recognition. ''Bingaman didn't really start until four weeks ago,'' says Mr. Garcia. ''He'd have to make a heck of a run to catch Schmitt.''

Among New Mexicans, the governor's race catches the most attention. The Democrat, former Attorney General Tony Anaya - a highly visible figure in the state's politics - has held a long plateau of support, shy of a clear majority. Republican John Irick, a conservative clearly cut from the Reagan mold, has started to gain on Mr. Anaya. New Mexico governor's races tend to run close - with 1 or 2 percent margins, decided by 3,000 votes or less.

''Anaya is very well known - almost at the 100 percent mark, a level usually reached only by someone like a president,'' Garcia says. ''However, he peaked early. He's been plateauing for some time. Irick played it smart. He started early, and he's plastered the state with signs and billboards. He's conservative , a businessman - earmarks of a strong statewide candidate. It's going to be close.''

In the most recent independent public survey, Irick trailed Anaya by only 2 points in the governor's race, while Bingaman had closed to within 14 points of Schmitt, a gain of 5 points in the last month.

In the House races, the Democrats are expected to break into the state delegation by winning in the new Santa Fe Third District behind Bill Richardson vs. Republican Marjorie Bell Chambers. Rep. Joseph Skeen in the Second District is thought to be the safer Republican incumbent. He is being challenged by Democrat Caleb Chandler. In the First District around Albuquerque, Republican Manuel Lujan could face a stiff challenge from Democrat Jan Hartke in a race the Democrats call ''winnable.''

''This is the most vibrant Democratic ticket in recent years,'' says State Democratic chairman Nick Frinklin. ''Our age group, averaging just under 40, has taken control. We've begun to move and shake things.''

''The economy has really hit hard the last three or four months,'' Mr. Frinklin says. ''Sixty thousand New Mexicans are out of work,'' adds candidate Bingaman. ''Mining, energy development, construction, agriculture - all are in desperate condition right now.''

The Republicans see things differently. They expect to pick up seats in the state Legislature, they quickly say, where in the House a conservative Democratic-Republican coalition wields effective control.

''I see an upturn coming in the economy right now,'' says Corky Morris, GOP state chairman.

Mr. Morris agrees the governor's race will be close. ''The Democrats thought they had it locked up in June,'' he says. ''But it'll be a very close race.'' Schmitt's contest looks safe to Morris: ''It was a targeted race for them. Schmitt's edge has been holding between 20 and 22 points since we've been monitoring it.''

Morris acknowledges the 1980s will test Republican resourcefulness in New Mexico, in many ways typical of the entire Southwest. The GOP in New Mexico, as in Texas, canvasses all newcomers to the state - a rich vein of support, as the newcomers vote 2 to 1 for Republicans.

But that does not mean the Southwest newcomers are registered Republicans, Morris is quick to point out. Many are Democrats from the Midwest, California, Texas. The state's 21/2-to-1 Democratic advantage is likely to stick, he says.

But by picking the candidates who can appeal across party lines, and pouring more money and other support into races, the Republicans have been able to neutralize the Democrats' registration edge.

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