Obama Puts Major Focus On New Mexico

Mayor Joseph Maestas stands outside a voter registration center in Espanola, N.M. i

Mayor Joseph Maestas stands outside a voter registration center in Espanola, N.M. The town's population is about 90 percent Hispanic and overwhelmingly Democratic. Ben Bergman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Bergman/NPR
Mayor Joseph Maestas stands outside a voter registration center in Espanola, N.M.

Mayor Joseph Maestas stands outside a voter registration center in Espanola, N.M. The town's population is about 90 percent Hispanic and overwhelmingly Democratic.

Ben Bergman/NPR

No state has been as close as New Mexico in recent presidential elections. Al Gore won there by a few hundred votes in 2000; President Bush took the state by a few thousand votes in 2004.

This year, polls are now showing a slight lead for Barack Obama. His success depends on turning out large numbers of Hispanic voters, who make up close to half the state's population.

And that support may help determine the next president: Analysts say that under some scenarios, the election could come down to one state, with just a handful of electoral votes.

If that state turns out to be New Mexico, Hispanic voters could make the difference: Forty percent of adults there are Hispanic. They traditionally vote Democratic. But in 2004, Bush captured enough of the Hispanic vote to win the state.

The Democrats are in a full-court press to try to ensure that the state doesn't go Republican in 2008.

"We have a presence around the state that we've never had before," said Brian Colon, chairman of the state's Democratic Party. "We have 40 offices — that's 4-0 — in just 33 counties. That is unheard of."

A Stop On The Road To The White House

The Obama campaign recognized early on that New Mexico was going to be critical to its success and that the road to the White House went through New Mexico, Nevada and nearby states.

In New Mexico, that road goes through places like Espanola. It's a small town in the north-central part of the state that's almost entirely Hispanic. The Obama campaign office is on the main drag through town, wedged between a tanning salon and an empty lot. It's almost impossible to miss: Painted in 6-foot-high letters is the word "Obamanos."

Martha Campbell is one of the full-time volunteers who have been putting in a lot of hours.

"We take shifts because we work most nights till about 3 o'clock in the morning anyway," Campbell said. "We have people coming in every five minutes getting registered to vote, so it's definitely a hectic day."

People in Espanola have been especially enthusiastic about Obama since he came to town a few weeks ago. More than 10,000 people crowded into Espanola's historic plaza near the Rio Grande to see him.

Rural People's Issues

Mayor Joe Maestas said many families in Espanola have been there for generations. Many are descended from conquistadors, and many are poor.

"There's not a lot of affluence here, and so a lot of the social justice issues are predominant in the minds of people here in Espanola," Maestas said. "We are isolated geographically. We don't have access to the best health care. Our educational system needs investment. Our infrastructure funding gap continues to grow. Our issues are the same as rural people all over America."

One big question has been whether older Hispanics would embrace Obama. In Espanola, there's evidence that they have. After lunch at the senior center across the street from City Hall, most of the lingering residents said they would support Obama.

Obama has a 5-point lead in New Mexico. But because about 14 percent of voters are still undecided, Republicans still consider the state up for grabs.

McCain's Advantages In New Mexico

Earlier this week, John McCain made an unexpected stop in Albuquerque. Few of those cheering at the hastily assembled midday rally were the Hispanic voters McCain will need to get elected.

But McCain does have a number of things going for him, when it comes to the Hispanic community, including his military background.

"Hispanics tend to be overrepresented in the military," said Gabriel Sanchez, who teaches political science at the University of New Mexico. "So if you run into a Hispanic voter out here in New Mexico, there's a good chance that somebody in their immediate family has served time in the military."

Another plus for McCain is that he's from neighboring Arizona, a state with a big Latino population. Then there's his unswerving position against abortion. It's those things that resonated with several young Hispanic supporters who had managed to get tickets to the rally, including Jonathan Olivas.

"I'm a believer; I call myself a Christian," Olivas said. "I am pro-life, so that's what has attracted me more to McCain."

Abortion is also the main issue for Dan Garza, chairman of the Republican Party in Valencia County, which is south of Albuquerque.

"I can't tell you how big that is here," Garza said. "Here, we look at it as, do we want to support an individual who would support murder? We look at it that seriously. That is a critical issue for this community. I've had people in my own family say that's only one issue, but it's like, if you don't get born, the rest of the issues don't matter."

Garza is just one of the party officials charged with getting Hispanics to vote Republican. While Democrats boast about the record number of field offices they've opened, the McCain campaign has set up only a few. On a recent visit to one, it was empty.

New-voter registration ended this week in New Mexico, and voting actually began. The state allows mail-in votes, and in some places people can already go to polling stations. For some, that means the election is already over.

Radio piece produced by Ben Bergman

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