Obama Sees N.M. As Must-Win State

New Mexico has a higher percentage of Hispanics in its voting electorate than any other state, which is one reason Democrats hope to dominate there in November. The Obama campaign is targeting the state as a must-win in the West.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Last week, when Barack Obama set off for the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, John McCain was visiting the battleground state of New Mexico. Both campaigns believe New Mexico could help turn the election.

Yesterday, we heard from Republicans trying to mobilize conservatives in the southern part of the state. Today, NPR's Linda Wertheimer reports on the lay of the land in the minds of Democrats.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: The economy is the issue for New Mexico Democrats right now. The state is huge, gas prices are a hardship. The Democrat Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish convened a roundtable discussion of the economy last week, saying that rural New Mexicans must drive many costly miles to deal with simple things like groceries and medical appointments.

Lieutenant Governor DIANE DENISH (Democrat, New Mexico): And so we are here to talk this afternoon about why we don't want a continuation of the Bush policies, why we believe John McCain is just generally bad for the future of New Mexico and for economic security.

WERTHEIMER: To win, Democrats must mobilize the heavily Democratic Hispanic vote in northern New Mexico, producing enough votes to cancel out the state's southern conservatives.

In the caucus in February, Hillary Clinton easily carried the north, so Lieutenant Governor Denish says Barack Obama should put her on the ticket.

Lt. Gov. DENISH: The Clintons together have been very good to New Mexico. They are adored here. People would think that was somewhat of a dream ticket.

WERTHEIMER: How big a win do Democrats need? John Kerry had 63 percent of the Hispanic vote and lost the state. Obama needs all these and more, plus all those Clinton voters. Brian Sanderoff heads a company called Research and Polling.

Mr. BRIAN SANDEROFF (Research and Polling): That is the real question: Will the Hispanics vote for the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama? Will they relate to him? Will he take his tie off when he goes bowling? He's more of an urban man. He's more of a sophisticated, suave gentleman. John McCain comes off a little more brash, a little more Western. Will some of the rural Hispanic Democrats favor that style?

WERTHEIMER: Considering the economy, Sanderoff says, the issues favor the Democrats. Martin Suazo(ph) agrees. He's the Democratic County Chair in Northern San Miguel County. He believes McCain's Western style and military record won't be enough this time.

Mr. MARTIN SUAZO (Democratic County Chair, Northern San Miguel County, New Mexico): In a perfect world, that would be a good argument. I think that if gas was not over $4 a gallon, I think that that would be a good case. I think that just simply overcoming the price of gas, for example, is going to be too big of a threshold for the Republican Party to overcome on this.

WERTHEIMER: The biggest town in San Miguel County is Las Vegas, 100 miles and change northeast of Albuquerque. We met Henrietta and Robert Durand(ph) at the Spick and Span Cafe. They are the loyal Democrats the state is counting on. She's retired; he operates school buses.

Ms. HENRIETTA DURAND: Born and raised Democrat, dyed in the wool Democrat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DURAND: I just wouldn't vote for McCain no matter what.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Durand, what about you? Have you picked a candidate?

Mr. ROBERT DURAND: Probably Obama. One, number one, I hope he ends the war and he brings down the gas prices, because it's killing me on my bus.

WERTHEIMER: The Durands voted for Clinton. Henrietta Durand is clearly disappointed, but she will vote for Obama, as will businessman Gabriel Lucero(ph). He has a son in the military. For him, that's even more important than the economy.

Mr. GABRIEL LUCERO: I've never seen a country or any situation that has gone so bad so fast as this country has gone in the last - under this administration.

WERTHEIMER: Lucero says Obama's race ought to help him in northern New Mexico, where Hispanics have no reason to resent African-Americans. Carl Sayna(ph) is a letter-carrier. He says he's interested to see a minority in the White House.

Mr. CARL SAYNA: At first I didn't like, as a lot of people didn't like, Obama's name. When you say Obama, what kind of name is that for somebody to run to be the president of the United States?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAYNA: Originally I was like, oh, no, no, no, but as I listened to him and as he made it this far, I said I think at this point that I'm all set to go with him and see what he can do.

WERTHEIMER: Brian Sanderoff says clearly there are cultural differences between Obama and these must-have voters in northern New Mexico, but he thinks Obama should be able to excite them. He points to Obama's TV ad on his work as a community organizer.

Ms. SANDEROFF: I think that's the kind of message he needs to send to Hispanics, that he didn't sell out and join corporate America just because he's an African-American who got good grades at Harvard, for them to hear that he is a person who cares about the economic concerns and the plight of those folks who are in dire need.

WERTHEIMER: New Mexico Democrats also want to see a candidate and touch him. One said we want to follow his lead, but we'd like to know exactly whom we're following. Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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