STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, this morning we're going to visit one of the most tightly contested House of Representatives districts in the country. The state's Attorney General in New Mexico - Democrat Patricia Madrid - is challenging five-term Republican Heather Wilson. Huge amounts of money are being spent on this New Mexico race -mostly for negative ads. Now, the scandal surrounding former Congressman Mark Foley is reaching into this race, which may become even hotter.
NPR's Linda Wertheimer has this report.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: First, Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson had to announce that a campaign contribution she'd had from Mr. Foley would be given to charity. Then, voters learned that Ms. Wilson was appointed to the Page Board in 2001 and served for several years, including part of the time when pages were supposedly warned about Mr. Foley being too friendly.
Heather Wilson responded to the Foley story quickly and strongly, saying she is disgusted that tolerating such behavior is almost as bad as the behavior itself.
Representative HEATHER WILSON (Republican, New Mexico): I am very proud of my record of working for children in this state and as a member of Congress. I'm the former cabinet secretary of child welfare in New Mexico. I have an adopted son who was an abused child. This is a very personal issue for me and has marked my career in public service. I will not tolerate someone who looked the other way. And I think Mr. Foley should be investigated, prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
WERTHEIMER: Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid was instantly on the offensive, suggesting in our interview, that her opponent was looking the other way.
Ms. PATRICIA MADRID (Congressional Candidate, New Mexico): I now understand that my opponent Heather Wilson sat on the Page Board in 2001. And for four years, I understand that she invited Congressman Foley to address the pages at a goodbye dinner to them. I would like to know what she knew about these allegations about him and why she wasn't demanding that he be removed from Congress altogether.
WERTHEIMER: Despite all the news stories about House pages and who knew what when, Iraq is still the biggest issue in New Mexico. Here's a Madrid campaign ad on the war, and like most ads in this campaign, it's an attack.
(Soundbite of Campaign Ad)
Unidentified Man #1: The war in Iraq: three and a half years, still no plan, and America is less safe. Heather Wilson is on the Intelligence Committee but she never questioned George Bush on the war, and she never said a word about how we'd spent $300 billion there.
WERTHEIMER: Patricia Madrid has also aired ads accusing her opponent of lying for George Bush on the Iraq war. Madrid talks about Iraq everywhere. This was at the Albuquerque Kiwanis Club.
Ms. MADRID: I am highly critical of the way we got into this war, and I am highly critical of the fact that this president has not given us a plan for a responsible exit. Stay the course is not a strategy. Paralysis is not a strategy. We need to have a responsible plan to start now.
WERTHEIMER: Madrid says Wilson votes with the president 85 percent of the time. Heather Wilson, an Air Force Academy graduate, insists she is not afraid to disagree with the president on Iraq, and she is quick to hit back at Madrid.
Rep. WILSON: She called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq a year ago. And even if we withdraw completely from Iraq now, I think that that would embolden terrorists and cause them to redouble their attacks on us. I support withdrawal schedules that are driven by commanders in the field, not by politicians in Washington.
WERTHEIMER: We spoke to Wilson when she was knocking on doors in a critical neighborhood in West Albuquerque. Wilson has a history of negative campaigns. This time she started in July, unusually early. And while Democrat Madrid talks about the war and the president, Republican Wilson wants to keep the campaign local.
(Sounbite of Campaign Ad)
Unidentified Man #2: State treasurers, Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil, were arrested for taking thousands in kickbacks, and Attorney General Patricia Madrid did nothing. Madrid was asked to investigate, and she did nothing. A whistleblower wrote Madrid a letter with details of the scheme - still Madrid did nothing.
WERTHEIMER: The ad pictures a furtive Madrid looking over her shoulder. Looking the other way is the implication.
The former state treasurer, Robert Vigil, was just acquitted on 23 kickback charges, convicted on one unrelated charge, although the jury foreman noted the acquittals don't mean that Mr. Vigil is universally admired.
Patricia Madrid told us she knows voters object to these negative ads.
Ms. MADRID: I would personally like to apologize to the public that we have to engage in that type of campaigning. It would be very nice if we could spend what money we do have on talking about all the good things that we've done -that I've done as attorney general.
WERTHEIMER: But you were also dishing it out. There's no question that you produced a whole series of ads, which paint a very negative picture of Heather Wilson.
Ms. MADRID: Well, did you ever hear of swift boating? I mean, Democrats are in a difficult position. Are we to remain silent? Because if we do, we all know we will lose.
WERTHEIMER: In late September, Madrid appeared to be gaining ground. The Albuquerque Journal called the race a tie. Brian Sanderoff, of Research and Polling, Inc., polls for the Journal. He points out that Albuquerque is a Democratic city, that Republican Wilson has won five elections with crossover Democratic support, but that some of that is slipping away.
Mr. BRIAN SANDEROFF (Pollster, Research and Polling, Inc.): Moderate Anglo Democrats and many Hispanics who have enjoyed and voted for Heather Wilson in the past are now coming home and supporting Patricia Madrid in larger numbers. Heather Wilson has gone from having 17 percent of the Democrats to 11 percent, and having 35 percent of the Hispanics, to 29 percent, just in 30 days.
WERTHEIMER: At the same time polls showed the race tied, the page scandal broke in Washington. And Tuesday, Patricia Madrid began running this TV ad, which opens with a child sitting in front of a computer.
(Soundbite of Campaign Ad)
Unidentified Man #3: When a child is on the Internet, it's hard to protect them. What are they reading? Who's talking to them? With the Internet, you never really know. As attorney general, Patricia Madrid started New Mexico's first Internet sex crimes prosecution unit, and…
WERTHEIMER: The Madrid campaign says that ad was produced this summer and has nothing to do with the page scandal.
Will the unfolding Foley story make a difference in the first congressional district of New Mexico? Brian Sanderoff, the Albuquerque Journal pollster suggests it might affect turnout.
Mr. SANDEROFF: You've got this base of Republicans who are very committed to their causes, and I think they get very discouraged when things like this happen. You know, family values, conservative Republican, having these kinds of controversies regarding young male pages. I think it can become discouraging to Republicans.
WERTHEIMER: Reporting on the very close House race in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Now, amid the scandal over Mark Foley, President Bush is standing by the leader of Republicans in the House. Speaker Dennis Hastert has been under pressure.
The president telephoned him yesterday to thank him for making a clear public statement. Hastert said he took responsibility but also said he had done nothing wrong, and that he will not leave his job.
The White House also says it is too soon to tell what effect the scandal will have on the November election, but the press secretary, Tony Snow, says individual members should not be held responsible for Foley's behavior.
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