The Mood in New Mexico

I was in New Mexico recently, part of a tour of the so-called Purple States. That's the handful of states that are neither Red (heavy for President Bush) nor Blue (in the bag for Democratic Sen. John Kerry) this fall. This is the high-stakes group where the 2000 results were close, the current polls are tight and the November election could be won or lost. New Mexico went for Al Gore by fewer than 500 votes four years ago, and the state is once again too close to call.

The "Land of Enchantment" is also my home state, but I didn't go anywhere near my hometown on this three-day trip because it's in the part of the state known as "little Texas." These small cities and towns on the eastern side of the state are much like their larger namesake across the state line, and just as likely to vote for the president — that's a given. So not such purple people. And I only briefly went to Santa Fe, where Kerry is expected to win handily. I went there to have lunch and see the governor (more about both later.)

That leaves, if you're familiar with New Mexico, the two most populous counties, Bernalillo, in the center of the state, where Albuquerque is, and Dona Ana, near the southern borders with Texas and Mexico, where Las Cruces is.

In a beautiful adobe style development in the hills above Albuquerque, we met with a group the locals characterize as "the whites in the heights" — middle-class swing voters whose votes will probably determine who gets New Mexico's five electoral votes. They generally favor Republicans but sometimes switch. We had a long and interesting talk with people who mostly voted for the president in 2000 but are not sure about doing so again. We put several of them on the radio earlier this month, but somehow, we left out our hosts for that occasion, a retired couple named Rudolph. Penny Rudolph writes Western novels; her husband Ralph heads the neighborhood association.

Penny Rudolph says she'll vote for Kerry. She also told us this administration reminded her of Enron — "Do whatever you can get away with then explain it however you can." Ralph Rudolph is torn. He told us the president is too much influenced by a "cabal of neo-conservatives who tell him what to do." But on the other hand, Ralph said, he hates Democrats as "damned tree-huggers." Both the Rudolphs are Republicans although Penny describes herself as "recovering." Ralph, upon reflection, allowed that he hates neo-cons more than tree-huggers but he doesn't like Kerry very much at all.

No way to know yet if very many Republicans and conservatives in New Mexico are having second thoughts —- but we did find more of these concerns than we expected to in the hills over Albuquerque.

In other parts of the state we expected a lot of loyal partisans on both sides and we found them wherever we went. With both groups, turnout is the only question. Kerry can count on considerable support from Hispanic voters in New Mexico. They like that he's a veteran and Catholic. There are still strong feelings about John Fitzgerald Kennedy among Hispanics in New Mexico; he campaigned in the state over 40 years ago, but his picture still can be found in many homes. We heard from several people that Kerry reminds them of Kennedy.

There is an element in the state that was not there in 2000. New Mexico now has a Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, elected two years ago. He was briefly considered a vice presidential possibility, taking himself out of the running about the time Kerry's campaign let its short list be known. And while he did not get the job, he's in a position to be helpful.

While we were there, Richardson had a telephone call from Kerry, apologizing for returning to Washington for a Senate vote, instead of coming to New Mexico as planned. We heard lots of "Hey, buddy, no problem...." from the governor, along with his strong assurances of support. Richardson, a very hands-on politician, is plainly making it a point of pride to deliver his state for the Democrats.

Now about that lunch — we stopped at a local hangout in Santa Fe called Tomasita's, near the state capitol. They have a sign inside the front door that warns tourists who might wander in that their chili is hot — and they don't do mild. My impression is that the presidential contest in New Mexico will be taking its tone from Tomasita's.

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