Udall Leads Polls in New Mexico's Senate Race

Voters in New Mexico will choose a new senator to replace retiring Republican Pete Domenici. Right now, Democrat Tom Udall has a sizable lead. He's up against Republican Congressman Steve Pearce.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Ken was mentioning about seven Democrats who are hoping to gain Senates seats this year. Let's talk about an eighth, one of the places the Democrats are challenging is New Mexico, which were long time Republican Senator Pete Domenici is retiring and a couple of congressmen are trying to replace him. Steve Pearce is a conservative Republican who survived a tough primary, Democrat Tom Udall comes from a family with a long liberal tradition, and NPR's Ted Robbins met up with both of them.

Congressman STEVE PEARCE (Republican, New Mexico, Senatorial Candidate): How are you all doing?

Unidentified Woman: Hello.

Congressman PEARCE: Excuse me. I'm Steve Pearce.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, nice to meet you.

TED ROBBINS: A hospital waiting room is an odd place for a politician to be working a crowd.

Unidentified Woman #2: Can you help me?

Congressman PEARCE: (Unintelligible), nice to see you. I need your help too.

ROBBINS: So, as Republican Steve Pearce tours this Albuquerque hospital before lunch with executives he strains to connect with voters unfamiliar with him.

Congressman PEARCE: How you doing? It's Steve Pearce.

Mr. DENNIS WILSON (Resident, New Mexico): Dennis Wilson, how are you?

Congressman PEARCE: I'm fine.

ROBBINS: Behind in the polls, Pearce can't afford to miss this or any other opportunity.

Congressman PEARCE: We go into people's homes, groups of 20, 30, 40, and we do this over and over and over.

ROBBINS: Steve Pearce is from Southern New Mexico, largely rural, away from the Albuquerque population center. He made his money in oil services. Let one of his TV ads explains.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Republican Steve Pearce stands strong for our New Mexico values. He grew up in Hobbs, excelled at 4-H, joined the Air Force, flew missions in Vietnam, a family man, a successful business leader, a congressman. Steve Pearce shares our conservative values...

ROBBINS: Pro-life, against stem-cell research, in favor of nuclear power and domestic oil drilling. He is also a classic conservative on the economy. The dominant issue in this race, too. Pearce voted against the $700 billion bailout - too much government intervention.

Congressman PEARCE: Felt like it was nationalizing a big piece of our financial services industry. I thought that it was not holding anyone accountable.

ROBBINS: Pearce's opponent, Democratic Congressman Tom Udall, also voted against the bailout for the opposite reason. Udall thought the government should become more involved, bailing out not just lenders but homeowners too.

Congressman TOM UDALL (Democratic, New Mexico, Senatorial Candidate): And all I'm talking about is somebody that has the money can't quite make the payment renegotiate with the lender to be able to stay in their homes.

ROBBINS: Udall is holding a town hall at Georgia O'Keeffe Elementary School in an affluent part of Albuquerque known as the Heights. He comes from a family full of liberal politician, Dad Stewart Udall, Uncle Moe Udall and Cousin Mark, who is also running for the Senate in Colorado. Tom Udall is pro-choice and stem cell research. He wants the country to shift to alternative energy sources. And this year, he thinks the voters are with him.

Congressman UDALL: I think there's clearly a national trend for government playing a bigger role in people's lives and people - there is no doubt that people think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

ROBBINS: The Republican Pearce has been attacking Udall for his liberal positions, but so far the attacks have not stuck. Here's an Udall ad brushing them off.

(Soundbite of political ad)

(Soundbite of parrot squawking)

Unidentified Speaker: Tax breaks for big oil. Tax breaks for big oil.

Unidentified Man #3: Ever wonder why Steve Pearce repeats everything the big oil companies say?

(Soundbite of parrot squawking)

Unidentified Speaker: Gas prices - Tom Udall's fault.

ROBBINS: Udall represents more liberal northern New Mexico in Congress. But New Mexico political blogger Joe Monahan says even voters in the urban center of the state, the Albuquerque area seemed to feel more comfortable with Udall than Pearce.

Mr. JOE MONAHAN (Political Blogger, New Mexico): We're a state of two million people. Tom Udall has gotten to know a lot of those people during his congressional career. They like him personally.

ROBBINS: Add to that, says Monahan, the large Democratic trending Hispanic and Native American population, and the historic difficulty for a conservative to win a statewide race in New Mexico.

Mr. MONAHAN: Most of the time, a middle-of-the-road candidate wins. This time, Udall has the added benefit of there being a Democratic trend, and Pearce being a conservative.

ROBBINS: The latest polls have Udall ahead by an average of more than 15 percent. Pearce is putting the best spin he can on it.

Congressman PEARCE: We knew what we faced, but the fact that he can't put us 30 points behind, which he should be ahead 30 points, tells me that the race is a very winnable.

ROBBINS: Early voting began in New Mexico last week. So to make up even 15 percent between now and Election Day, Republican Steve Pearce's best hope is for his Democratic opponent to have a major meltdown. In other words, the number showed this Senate race is Tom Udall's to lose. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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Correction Dec. 18, 2008

The story inaccurately described Republican Congressman Steve Pearce as "against stem-cell research." In fact, his Web site says that he only opposes stem-cell research "that destroys human life, such as research on embryos."

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