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  •   New Mexico Race Becomes Focus In Bigger Battle for House Control

    New Mexico

    By Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, June 22, 1998; Page A04

    ALBUQUERQUE — Under the red tile roofs that dot this desert landscape, it has become an evening ritual for many: Flip on the television set for a bit of news, the always-sunny weather report and the verbal jousting of two aggressive young men from Washington – Republican Todd Harris and Democrat Josh Block.

    Block accuses Republicans of "lies, distortions, abuse of power" and claims Democrats are compelled to run snarly commercials to prevent the enemy from "running roughshod over the truth."

    Harris issues a daily fax poking fun at the missteps of the Democratic team. He calls their ads "a blatant attempt to mislead voters . . . muddy the waters and confuse people." The contest to replace the late Rep. Steven Schiff (R) has degenerated into the costliest, ugliest campaign New Mexicans have ever witnessed, a battle so fierce that letters are streaming into the newspapers decrying what one man dubbed "Slime Time TV."

    And Harris and Block aren't even on the ballot in Tuesday's special election. They are merely hired mouthpieces – Harris is on leave from the National Republican Congressional Committee to work for the Wilson campaign; Block is a Democratic Party consultant – part of a massive Washington contingent that headed to the Southwest for a month of high-stakes campaigning. But they are what this race – and in a larger sense this year's congressional elections – are all about.

    Here at the juncture of the Rio Grande and historic Route 66 is where the battle for the House begins. In the minds of the political pros back in Washington it is too important to leave to the candidates, Heather Wilson, a Republican endorsed by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), and Phil Maloof, the multimillionaire Democrat from a popular local family.

    With the GOP's slim 11-seat margin, nearly every race offers Democrats the prospect of inching closer to control of the House. And this special election, considered a tossup, is one of the Democratic Party's best chances to narrow the gap.

    If Maloof wins, Democrats will be 10 seats away from regaining control and head into the fall with a pleasant tail wind. But if Wilson can hang onto the seat for Republicans, the GOP will widen the gap to a dozen and help alleviate fears that the party is not ready for this year's arduous campaign. "Heather needs all the help we can give her to keep this seat in Republican control," an aide to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) wrote in a recent fund-raising appeal. "Let's send a message this month that our majority is safe."

    Calling the fight for New Mexico's 1st Congressional District a bellwether would be a stretch. The demographics of the district – poor and nearly 40 percent Hispanic – hardly track the rest of the nation and no broad themes have come out of this race.

    But the three-week sprint from the June 2 primary to Tuesday's election offers a glimpse into campaigning 1998-style. Assuming the economy remains strong, no national tide emerges and President Clinton eludes serious trouble, November's congressional races, like this one, are shaping up as brutal, individual contests in which the outcome may rest on money, advertising, tactics and turnout.

    "For better or for worse we now have all the trappings of a big-city campaign with the parties and issue advocacy groups and outside big guns," said New Mexico political scientist F. Chris Garcia. "Maloof will have to overcome the traditional Republican bias in the district, especially in a low-turnout election. But he has the resources to get out Democrats."

    Set in the shadow of the Sandia National Mountains, Albuquerque retains a Wild West flavor and strong military influence of Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia National Laboratories. Although Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans, an influx of high-tech firms and retirees means this district behaves more like other right-leaning, suburban areas.

    "The persuadable group both campaigns are going after are moderate, Anglo suburbanites, many of them women," said Brian Sanderoff, an unaffiliated pollster here.

    To woo female voters, Maloof invited first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tipper Gore and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.). Wilson, a former Air Force captain and member of the National Security Council staff in the Bush administration, can seem stern. She has attempted to soften her image by closing her commercials with a slow-motion shot of her 2-year-old daughter running into her open arms. And she concludes most speeches with a tale about sitting on the roof of her house, reading to her son Josh.

    If Maloof is to win he must neutralize the impact of Bob Anderson, the Green Party nominee who has drawn double digits in recent polls. Last year, Republicans pulled an upset in New Mexico's 3rd District in part because the Green candidate siphoned votes from the Democrat.

    Though sometimes overshadowed by the party pros, the candidates are a study in contrasts.

    Maloof is a state senator and son of a businessman so revered his bronze likeness stands in Albuquerque's Civic Plaza. An earnest 31-year-old, Maloof brags about securing money for a new local pool, the new Montano Bridge and a mobile police unit. He embraces Clinton policies on gay rights, the minimum wage, tobacco and education. "A vote for either Heather Wilson or Bob Anderson is a vote for Newt Gingrich and his right-wing Republican agenda," he warns.

    Wilson – former head of the state's Children, Youth and Families department – is a newcomer in a state that often prefers natives. But her years in the Air Force and in government are attractive to the many veterans and government workers. Her pitch is simple: "The great threat to America today is not from without but from within."

    Both rely heavily on the Washington political infrastructure.

    On the Republican side, the beloved Domenici has written letters, taped personal phone messages and stumped for Wilson, 37. More important, he has lent her some of his most seasoned operatives, including fund-raising whiz Heidi Hebblewhite and Steve Bell, a commando-like character who stalks the district in crew cut, hiking boots and shorts.

    For Democrats, the imported talent ranges from Hillary Clinton to Graham Cheynoweth, a California college student trained by the Democratic National Committee to round up senior citizens and drive them to the polls. "We know not to interrupt bingo," he explained as he trolled for voters at the Barelas Senior Center.

    Maloof's personal fortune – he has lent the campaign at least $1.3 million – and the GOP's willingness to match that makes this a pricey race. Even with Maloof's wealth, national Democrats have spent about $350,000 here, while the GOP has funneled about $800,000 into the race, more than half coming from House members and state parties. Most of the money goes to advertising.

    Wilson's ads use giant red "lies" stamps and flying dollar signs to tarnish Maloof. She lambastes him as a spoiled rich kid lacking the intellectual heft to be in Congress. (Conceded one Washington Democrat: "The tactic we are using with this kid is not to showcase him too much in debates.")

    Maloof calls Wilson an interloper, beholden to Gingrich and his fat-cat lobbying pals. Maloof's admakers plunked a dunce cap atop a photo of Wilson and dredged up a two-year-old TV news report making unexplained allegations that she removed a confidential state file on her husband, a foster parent.

    In a begrudging endorsement of Maloof Friday, the Albuquerque Tribune lectured both. "Like many New Mexicans we have been disappointed by the candidates . . . and the tenor of their campaigns."

    The candidates, studying polls that show their "unfavorable" ratings climbing with each nasty spot, fear a backlash. But "negative ads move numbers," said retiring Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), who has been assisting with the race. So both candidates continue to air vitriol.

    As for Harris and Block, they'll be on planes back to Washington by Thursday. For them, this battle was just the first of the real war.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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