N.M. Republicans Battle For McCain

No state with just five electoral votes will be more hotly contested this fall than New Mexico. This fall it will elect a new senator and replace its congressional delegation as well. The state's conservatives discuss their mood ahead of the election.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Five electoral votes - that tiny number fails to capture how important New Mexico could be in this year's presidential election. Combined with a couple of other southwestern states, New Mexico could swing a close race. Over the next two days, we're going to hear about Democratic and Republican strategies to win in New Mexico. It's a split state - the north tends to vote one way, the south and east another. Almost four in 10 voters are Hispanic, and they may be the key.

Today, NPR's Linda Wertheimer reports on GOP hopes for the self-styled Land of Enchantment.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: John McCain held a town meeting in Albuquerque last week. Most of the people attending were GOP loyalists, but also in the audience was Lawrence Lovato(ph).

Mr. LAWRENCE LOVATO (College Student): I like that he's pro-life, he's pro-military and he's pro-tax cut.

WERTHEIMER: Have you always been a Republican?

Mr. LOVATO: No. Absolutely not.

WERTHEIMER: How did you get to be a Republican?

Mr. LOVATO: I'm not a Republican.

WERTHEIMER: You have a problem with Barack Obama?

Mr. LOVATO: I do have a problem with Barack Obama. I have a problem with a lot of his social policies, people he's been associating with.

WERTHEIMER: Like?

Mr. LOVATO: Well, Reverend Wright. What's the guy's name? I think William Ayers. And I'm not too fond of Mrs. Obama either.

WERTHEIMER: Lovato is exactly the Hispanic voter that McCain needs - an Iraq vet, a social conservative, and a Democrat. Lovato got to ask a question in the town meeting.

Mr. LOVATO: I'm going to school on the G.I. Bill right now. I'm halfway through my bachelor's program and my G.I. Bill's about to run out. And I've been hearing third-hand information from CNN and everybody why you oppose it. So I want to hear from the Straight Talk Express.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOVATO: Why do you not support...

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Yeah.

Mr. LOVATO: ...the new G.I. Bill and what reassurance can you give me and all the other veterans in this country that you're going to give us your unending support?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, thank you for your...

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. McCAIN: ...service to our country. We did resolve the issue, which I said was incentives for people to remain in...

WWERTHEIMER: He didn't really answer my question, Lovato said after the meeting, seeming a little less enthusiastic about McCain. And enthusiasm is what John McCain must have. New Mexico's Hispanics are overwhelmingly Democrats. McCain needs at least some of them to cross over.

Brian Sanderoff's firm, Research & Polling, surveys the state.

Mr. BRIAN SANDEROFF (President, Research & Polling. Inc.): He's not going to win among Hispanics; they won't think that they can ever win among Hispanics. But if the Democrat receives 60 percent of the Hispanic vote instead of 85 percent of the Hispanic vote in a close election, that will make the difference, giving the Republicans a chance to actually win the state.

WERTHEIMER: McCain's best shot is in the state's Little Texas in the southeast and in the rural south. Here, too, enthusiasm counts.

Socorro County is due south of Albuquerque. GOP county chair Rosie Tripp has concerns about John McCain; he was not her first choice. She went to McCain's town meeting.

Ms. ROSIE TRIPP (GOP Chair, Socorro County): After listening to him yesterday and seeing him in person, I feel more comfortable with him now, and we're really going to give it a good shot. I think we can do it.

WERTHEIMER: We talked to Rosie Tripp the next day at El Camino, a popular breakfast spot in the town of Socorro. The voters we met there explained her concerns. Robert Gonzales(ph) is a big fan.

Mr. ROBERT GONZALES (McCain Supporter): McCain, McCain, McCain, McCain.

WERTHEIMER: Okay. Why?

Mr. GONZALES: Because he's an ex-military man and so am I. And I think he could take care of the country. If he were to get a young vice president and a good vice president, I think that he would really be elected.

WERTHEIMER: We also met a number of conservative Republicans who are not happy about voting for McCain, like retired farmer Harry Strailey(ph).

Mr. HARRY STRAILEY (Retired Farmer): Well, I'm going to force myself to vote for McCain because we can't survive Obama.

WERTHEIMER: What has McCain done - I mean, what in his record is it that you don't like?

Mr. STRAILEY: McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy - you just go down through the list. You can't make deals with liberals. You're a conservative, you stay a conservative.

WERTHEIMER: So far, pollster Brian Sanderoff says McCain has not been able to spark the conservative voter as President Bush did.

Mr. SANDEROFF: And now, what we're seeing on the early TV commercial is McCain is back to I'm a maverick, I'm an independent, I'll do what's best for the nation, not for the party. That's not the kind of message that the conservatives want to hear.

WERTHEIMER: President Bush won southern New Mexico with a big turnout and that tipped the race in 2004. Tomorrow, we'll hear from voters in northern New Mexico where Barack Obama's hopes for a big vote depend on voters whose first choice was Hillary Clinton.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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