In New Mexico, one of the nation's hottest races

The candidates are debating the Iraq war, corruption in Congress, and a state scandal – but not immigration.

The fault line in one of the country's tightest congressional races runs between Iraq, New Mexico, and who gets to march first in the state fair parade.

Republican incumbent Heather Wilson, seeking her fifth full term, faces the state's Democratic attorney general, Patricia Madrid, in a race that polls have shown as very close.

The race is a microcosm of dueling strategies other Democrats and Republicans are using in their campaigns this fall. Ms. Madrid is trying to tie Ms. Wilson to an unpopular president, a troublesome war in Iraq, and a culture of corruption in Washington. The Wilson campaign is trying to focus on local issues, and saddle Madrid with a state corruption scandal.

One issue that has not cropped up, despite New Mexico's status as a border state, is immigration. One that has been resolved – via coin toss – was that Madrid got to march ahead of Wilson in the parade. What remains is a tight contest.

An Albuquerque Journal poll released Oct. 1. showed Wilson and Mardrid dead even with each taking 44 percent of the vote. Seven percent of registered likely voters were undecided, and 5 percent said that they wouldn't vote for either one.

"Madrid's campaign is definitely a must-win race for Democrats' battle to regain control of the House," says Ramona Oliver, spokeswoman for EMILY's List, a political action committee for pro-choice Democratic women, which has funneled $220,000 to Madrid, according to the campaign.

Money flows into both campaigns

Madrid has raised approximately $1.8 million total so far, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has reserved $1.9 million for television ads in the district.

Wilson has raised some $2.8 million, and the National Republican Campaign Committee has spent $550,000 on the race, according to spokesman Alex Burgos.

Voter registration in New Mexico's first congressional district is 46 percent Democratic and 35 percent Republican, although both Wilson and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry won the district in 2004. Republicans are counting on that split to continue working for Wilson.

"New Mexico One voters are very independent-minded," says Mr. Burgos. "They elect independent representatives."

The incumbent

Wilson's campaign website notes that she is "independent, honest, effective," and adds that she has "a clear independent streak."

Yet Wilson has been tied to Washington in some uncomfortable ways. Over the weekend, she said she would give $8,000 to charity that she had received from former Rep. Mark Foley, the Florida Republican who resigned Friday after news broke indicating that he had sent inappropriate e-mails to at least one male page.

And in line with other representatives, Wilson has returned other monies, such as $10,000 from former House Majority Leader and Republican Rep. Tom Delay of Texas.

An Air Force veteran who holds a PhD in international relations from Oxford University in England, Wilson sits on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

She also serves on the House's Energy and Commerce Committee. In 2004, while serving on that committee, she excoriated CBS executives after Janet Jackson's breast-baring incident at the Super Bowl halftime show. Wilson has backed legislation for increased penalties for broadcast indecency.

Her campaign manager, Enrique Knell, did not return numerous phone calls over several weeks requesting an interview with Wilson. But he did e-mail a number of news articles about corruption allegations in the New Mexico state treasurer's office.

"As you can see," Mr. Knell wrote, "corruption in Santa Fe [the state capital] and Patricia Madrid's failure to root it out is the biggest issue in this race."

The challenger

Yet one of Madrid's talking points has been her tough stance as a prosecutor. Sitting in a conference room at her husband's Albuquerque law firm, she touts her office's criminal prosecutions and pursuit of corporate wrongdoing against companies such as Enron. Those are also among the reasons the DCCC says it recruited Madrid into the race.

Madrid dressed in a black pantsuit, says Wilson is attempting to divert attention from a key issue on voters' minds: the war in Iraq.

"This race is going to be a referendum on this administration's conduct of the war and its unwillingness to give us a responsible exit plan," Madrid says. "Stay the course is not a plan. Stay the course is paralysis."

New Mexico's demographics

New Mexico is 43.6 percent Latino, according to the 2005 American Community Survey from the US Census Bureau.

Madrid would be the first Latina elected to the House from New Mexico if she wins.

But the otherwise hot-button issue of immigration has not surfaced in the race. One possible reason is that the state's poor economy has failed to draw large numbers of outside workers, says F. Chris Garcia, professor emeritus of political science at the University of New Mexico. The large Latino population may also mean that Latino immigrants blend in more easily, he adds.

In these parts, Historic Route 66 becomes Central Avenue as it runs through Albuquerque, and is dotted with trendy restaurants, boutique shops, and tattoo parlors.

Locals weigh in on the race

Ryan and Lisabeth Harwood, both 24 and brandishing a few tattoos, were outside the Sachs Body Modifications tattoo and piercing parlor one recent afternoon. Both plan to vote in the upcoming election, but the couple has been turned off by the negative commercials on TV.

Mr. Harwood, who works in an automotive shop, said his voter registration is unaffiliated. He voted for Wilson in the last election after meeting her at an art show – she answered his questions, and appeared competent. But he also voted for Kerry in 2004 because he agreed with the candidate on abortion and birth control issues.

Ms. Harwood, a body piercer at Sachs, did not live in the district during the last election, and has a mixed views of the candidates. "It seems that Patricia Madrid has more points that I would agree with, but the whole state treasurer fiasco has me kind of doubting her, and Heather Wilson seems more conservative and a George Bush lackey, so that has me more turned off towards her."

Ms. Harwood says of her vote in November, "I have no idea which way I'll go at this point."

First District facts

• Pop. in 2005: 640,640

• Pop. in 2000: 606,400

• Nonhispanic white: 48.5 percent

• Black: 2.3 percent

• Hispanic: 42.6 percent

• Median income: $38,413

• Poverty status: 14 percent

• Military veterans: 15.2 percent

• The International Balloon Fiesta is held in Albuquerque every October

• In 1975, Bill Gates founded Microsoft in Albuquerque

• The town of Rio Rancho is home to an Intel plant, and Sprint PCS facilities

Sources: The 2006 Almanac of American Politics and 2005 American Community Survey

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