Yet Another Republican Bastion May Fall to Democrats This Year

Even in a state with a fairly strong economy, concerns about losing jobs and other issues push Clinton ahead - a letter from Santa Fe

YELLOW aspen leaves are falling slowly but surely in the adobe-style town square here. And unless President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle talk fast on their visits to New Mexico this week, so are their hopes for carrying this usually Republican state.

"It's time for a change," chimed a bunch of noisy Democrats gathered at a noon environmental rally last week.

Sen. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado was the week's surrogate for the Clinton/Gore campaign, here to make fun of President Bush's environmental record. "For environmentalists like us, this is the most important presidential election since 1932," he told a placard-waving crowd.

The signs, shaken back and forth in unison like baby rattles, conveyed the same message: "Save the Endangered Species Act - Dump Bush" or "Clean up the air, Clean out the White House."

Not to be outdone, Bush and his running mate will be socking back in grand style in nearby Albuquerque, Alamogordo, and Farmington today and Wednesday.

"We are going to underline Clinton's atrocious record on civil rights and why his drastic defense cuts will put more New Mexicans out of work [than Bush's cuts]," says Tony Gallegos, head of the Bush/Quayle campaign in Albuquerque.

New Mexico has not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, but it is poised to do so now. Aided by a surge in Democratic registration, Gov. Bill Clinton enjoys a 12-point lead over Bush: 42 percent to 30 percent, with 9 percent for Ross Perot, and 9 percent undecided, according to the most recent Albuquerque Journal poll.

As I wander through the crowds, I hear why - the same words uttered in five states during a 3,000 mile swing through the Southwest - "Jobs and the economy."

The poll numbers look bad for Bush despite a state economy that is better off than in nearby Texas and California. There have been two straight state budget surpluses and unemployment is slightly below the national average.

Although New Mexico has the second-lowest per-capita income in the nation, the state is, ironically, almost recession-proof. At the low-income end, this is because of a large rural population far below the poverty line; at the high end, because of a growing number of millionaire art dealers here in Santa Fe.

But with national priorities shifting amid post-cold-war budget-cutting, thousands of employees at Los Alamos National Labs, White Sands Missile Range, Cannon Air Force Base, and other federal installations here are getting nervous.

"That's why volunteers are coming out our ears more than anytime since Jimmy Carter," says Dale Doremus, a Clinton/Gore campaigner.

Stand-in campaigners such as Senator Wirth have been flooding New Mexico both north and south to tighten the Democrats' grip on yet another conservative Western state. Although New Mexico offers only five electoral votes, it is a bellwether state - one of nine states that has picked the winner in all but one presidential election since 1945.

The Republicans have been less active here than the Democrats. In a visit last week to nearby Albuquerque, Marilyn Quayle highlighted to the state's 50 percent Hispanic population that Arkansas has no civil rights law and that Governor Clinton signed an English-only law five years ago. But the visit received little press attention.

The Perot campaign also does not have a high profile here.

Albuquerque's Perot coordinator, Ray Elosua, says a ground swell of support for Perot belies recent statewide figures. For example, he says, a survey of students at one local medical school had Clinton at 37 percent, Perot at 32, and Bush at 11. James Stockdale, Perot's running mate, will be here today and tomorrow to underline the need to tackle the nation's budget deficit head-on.

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