Campaigns Vie For Bellwether County In New Mexico The city of Rio Rancho, N.M., is the hub of a swing county in the middle of a swing state. Both campaigns are working their ground game hard. Democrats are hopeful that Barack Obama's lead in the polls will hold, but Republicans have a long history of turning out big on Election Day.

Campaigns Vie For Bellwether County In New Mexico

Campaigns Vie For Bellwether County In New Mexico

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Politically, New Mexico is really three states: a strongly Republican south and east, a strongly Democratic north and a moderate middle, where most of the voters live.

Four years ago, President Bush won New Mexico with fewer than 6,000 votes. That was the closest margin of any state, and the closest county in New Mexico was Sandoval County, in the middle of the state.

Sandoval County is about two-thirds the size of Connecticut. Much of it is high desert, stunning vistas and Indian Pueblos.

But two-thirds of the county's voters live in a fast-growing suburban area in the south: Rio Rancho, just across the Rio Grande River from Albuquerque. This is where the Sandoval County vote — and maybe New Mexico's — will be decided.

Obama volunteer Marg Elliston walks door-to-door in this spread-out neighborhood of modest older homes. She holds detailed sheets with voter names, bar codes and boxes to check off, according to how each resident plans to vote.

Elliston will mark Steven Levine and his wife as "strong Obama." Levine says he likes what Obama stands for, saying, "We actually think this is the first decent president since John F. Kennedy."

That's one of the strongest comments you're likely to hear. Not only is Rio Rancho a fairly moderate community, but politics in New Mexico also tends to be fairly low-key.

Campaign Offices Buzzing

So it's a bit surprising that on a recent Sunday afternoon, things are hopping at the Obama field office in Rio Rancho.

The office was crammed with at least a dozen new Obama volunteers, listening to Steve Werner explain the voter-canvassing sheets.

This is one of two Obama offices with paid staff in Sandoval County. The campaign has 39 offices statewide, compared with nine for the McCain campaign.

One of the McCain offices is actually two doors down. But the office is closed on Sundays. McCain supporter Jim Ganley stands outside, watching.

"I'm a Republican, and you know, seems like he [Obama] has more money, and there's just more enthusiasm when you talk to Obama supporters," he says.

John Butrick joins Ganley. Butrick says he works for the New Mexico Republican Party. The two men are also going to walk neighborhoods today — not for McCain but for a candidate for the state Legislature. Butrick says office activity doesn't matter.

"Just because we're not in the office, doesn't mean we're not out working," he said. "We're going about our business."

Historically, it doesn't take much prodding to get New Mexico Republicans to vote. They are more likely to turn out than Democrats.

Voting For Person, Not Party

Tom Swisstack is Rio Rancho's mayor. Like many New Mexicans, he sounds as laid-back as he appears. He is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt for a weekend meeting in a coffee shop. Swisstack is a Democrat in a town with a Republican registration edge.

"If everybody came out that could vote, OK, I would theoretically have lost if everybody voted party line," he said.

Swisstack says his success is evidence that voters here — Republican, Democrats and independents — are more likely to vote for the person than the party. He says whichever candidate works harder to make one-on-one contact with voters will win, but that is not easy in this geography.

"It's not like New York, Detroit, California, where you can just walk next to each other. This is spread out. You take the effort to come to see me — and some of these roads are a dirt road — that means something to me," he said.

The latest poll shows Obama with a five-point lead statewide. His ground organization could give him Sandoval County. If that happens, look for it to mirror New Mexico as a whole.

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