Former congresswoman Heather Wilson of New Mexico may be the most important Republican Senate candidate you never heard of. She will be in a nip-and-tuck race this November, likely against Rep. Martin Heinrich (D), a left-winger whose track record includes a plea to cast as a “monument” a chunk of land bordering Mexico (thereby providing the perfect entry point for smugglers, narco-terrorists and the rest) and a refusal to vote to condemn the infamous Goldstone Report (he voted “present”). It is a competitive race in a critical swing state.

She tells me in a lengthy interview on Capitol Hill that President George W. Bush nicknamed her “Landslide” after her 2006 win by 875 votes. She laughs, “He stopped when I reminded him I got more votes than he did in my district” in 2004.

Her story and her family’s is the stuff of books and movies. She tells her story — from her grandfather in Scotland who got into the Royal Flying Corps at 17 years old (when told that he couldn’t leave his job as an apprentice in the shipyards, he and a buddy promptly broke some equipment and got themselves fired in order to join up) to her father (who started flying at age 13 and enlisted in the Air Force at 17) to her own story as one of the first women admitted to the Air Force Academy. With a father and grandfather who played pioneering roles in U.S. civil aviation, she grew up around flying. Her family had a small house in New Hampshire, and she recalls, “The den was supposed to be my room.” But instead her father used it to build an experimental experimental open cockpit biplane. “In the house!” she adds for emphasis.

If Wilson — a Rhodes Scholar, small-businesswoman and member of George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff — wins the Senate race, she’ll be the newest rising star in the GOP. Unlike flashier candidates and senators, she exudes seriousness and gravitas. Before coming to the House, she headed up then-New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson’s Children, Youth & Families Department, where she took on reform of the foster children’s program and juvenile justice system. Her military experience, wide-ranging background and dogged work style suggest she would be a formidable figure in the Senate.

Like the most effective Republican candidates from swing states, Wilson radiates calmness and reasonableness. She avoids invective but knows more than most politicians about electricity generation, coal mining and border security — all issues in her state. In an interview, she lives up to her reputation as a no-nonsense person who has mastered her material.

She has had a series of competitive House races in which her opponents (and the Democratic National Committee and third-party groups) spent millions against her, much of it in negative ads. She ran 10,000 votes ahead of Bush in 2004, so she’s not dependent on a Mitt Romney win in the state.

For her, like most candidates running for national office, the main focus is “on jobs and how do we get the economy back on track.” But she adds, “There are other things linked to that in New Mexico.” One of the biggest is energy. She explains, “It is not just the high cost of gas. We are an energy-producing state.”She says simply that it has “never been harder’ to develop energy sources on federal lands than it is now. She jokes, “I sometimes think the president’s ‘all of the above’ energy policy means everything above the surface.”

From the Environmental Protection Agency to the Bureau of Land Management to the Fish and Wildlife Service, federal regulators seem determined to make energy production more difficult and more expensive. She talks about the EPA’s “haze” regulations, which concern how blue the sky appears. New Mexico proposed a $70 million plant retrofit to comply with the regulations; the EPA is insisting on a $700 million one. She says deliberately, “The difference between the two is not visible to the human eye,” adding, “This has to do with an ideological agenda.”

To support her view, she points to the administration’s budget, saying, “Their policy is to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.” To that end the goal is to make Americans and businesses pay more for energy, she contends. Of the $1.5 trillion in new taxes, she says, “There are 14 taxes. Ten of them are on oil and gas.”

She is critical of the president’s lack of seriousness on fiscal reform. Even if President Obama didn’t like the entire Simpson-Bowles report, “he could have embraced some of the ideas,” she says. “We could have made progress. Instead we have trillion-dollar deficits for as far the eye can see. We’re in trouble. We’re not getting there by cutting back on foreign aid.”

What is missing, she tells me matter-of-factly, is “the political will.” If Ronald Reagan and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) could craft a deal to extend Social Security solvency for 30 years, she argues we should be able to do the same. But she says, “You have to decide if you want to govern and not just have an issue” to campaign on.

I ask her about the “war on women” charge. The former Air Force officer laughs, recalling that the arch leading above the Air Force Academy entrance bore the phrase from a poem beginning “Bring me men . . .” She says she knows about “negative environments.” She says the ploy suggests that Democrats are “worried” that women won’t support Democrats as much as they have in the past. “So they have to generate an issue.” She deadpans, “Whether it is women’s’ health care or jobs or education, I can understand why they are concerned.”

In Part 2 of the interview, Wilson talks about gaining Hispanic support, foreign policy and her likely opponent.