Bush or Kerry in New Mexico?

A guide to the swing states.
Sept. 10 2004 5:58 PM

New Mexico

Bush can beat Kerry. But can he beat Bill Richardson?

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LAS CRUCES, N.M.—Al Gore won New Mexico by 366 votes in 2000, and I've managed to track down the man who delivered them. His name is Chuck Davis, and he has agreed to meet for coffee at Days Hamburgers (est. 1932) in downtown Las Cruces. "Are you a liberal?" he jokes, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. "OK, I'll talk to you." On Election Day 2000, George W. Bush appeared to narrowly win New Mexico's five electoral votes. But more than three weeks later, with the nation's attention glued to Florida, Davis, a retired engineer from White Sands, "discovered" 500 Gore votes that had somehow eluded the counters. Amid the howls of local Republicans, New Mexico shifted into the Gore column. If Gore had carried one more small state—West Virginia, say, or New Hampshire—New Mexico might have been Florida and Davis its Katherine Harris.

Davis, who has sandy, close-cropped hair and thick glasses, doesn't look like a crooked Chicago precinct captain. That he unearthed the "Las Cruces 500," he says, was pure kismet. Davis had wandered into Dona Ana County's adobe courthouse one morning, when he ran into the county clerk, Rita Torres. Torres needed a Democrat to monitor the formal vote canvassing, so Davis joined a Republican operative in Room 104. "I was sitting there next to the Republican representative, and he said, 'Look at all these stupid Democrats, they didn't even vote for president,' " Davis says. "It just didn't jibe." In fact, a worker in a heavily Democratic precinct had scrawled the number "620" on a tally sheet so poorly that it looked like "120"—thus, 500 Gore votes had vanished. Davis buzzed Democratic leaders in Albuquerque, and as Fox News correspondents descended on Las Cruces, he barricaded himself in his house outside of town. He had never before granted an interview. "I was out of that little room before you know it," he says.

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There's a useful metaphor in Chuck Davis—shy, almost painfully earnest—for the entire state of New Mexico. Unlike the cranks in New Hampshire and Iowa, who flaunt their electoral importance, New Mexicans seem slightly frightened by all the attention they're receiving this year. The state has a grueling history of anonymity: New Mexico magazine has acolumn called "One of Our 50 Is Missing," in which readers detail their encounters with Americans who have never heard of New Mexico. But since January, Bush and John Kerry have showered New Mexico with love, visiting four times each and papering the state with soft-focus campaign ads. New Mexico's hyperactive governor, Bill Richardson, was selected to chair the Democratic Convention in Boston.

When I visited Las Cruces in August, Kerry seemed poised to score a knockout. He had led in John Zogby's New Mexico poll all summer, at times by nearly 10 points. (Kerry still leads by 9.7 percent in Zogby's latest survey.) Consultants were speculating that Bush might well withdraw his ads here and funnel the money into must-win contests in Ohio and Florida. But last Sunday, an Albuquerque Journal poll showed that Bush had pulled ahead, 45 percent to 42 percent—and the survey was taken before Bush's speech at the Republican Convention. I called Kerry's Albuquerque headquarters, expecting furious denials, denunciations of the poll's methodology, etc. Here's what I got instead: "We're very excited that after one month of negative barrages, we're within the margin of error," said a spokesman. Kerry 2004: Excited to be within the margin of error!

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Why does New Mexico find itself lumped in with the larger, vote-rich swing states? Mainly because it's an unbelievably cheap date. Thirty-second commercials on Albuquerque's 10 p.m. newscasts—which reach up to 75 percent of the state's population—usually run about $1,000. The state is so inexpensive that it even attracts Libertarians: Presidential candidate Michael Badnarik spent more than $65,000 on a TV commercial, "Peace President," that aired only in New Mexico.

Bush and Kerry covet New Mexico's Hispanics, who make up 42 percent of the state's population. Compared with California and Arizona, which have large numbers of recent immigrants, New Mexican Hispanics tend to be more assimilated and thus more open to Republican overtures. "We have a very different history here," says Chris Garcia, a University of New Mexico political scientist. "We have Hispanics that go back to the 1600s. We have more Hispanic public officials, more Hispanics penetrated into society, more highly educated." For Bush, capturing New Mexico would provide indisputable evidence that he has finally made lasting inroads with Hispanic voters, a jihad he began in 1998 in Texas. For Kerry, a win would offer hope that as Hispanic populations grow, Democrats can compete in Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada—if not now, then maybe 2008.

Lastly, there's the Bill Richardson Factor. I took a Democratic lobbyist to breakfast to find out just how large Richardson looms over state politics. "He strong-arms people," the lobbyist said. "He demands absolute loyalty. If he could do it, he'd behead the people that go against him." As David Plotz has pointed out, Richardson staked his national career on the art of the schmooze. He once set the Guinness record for most hands shaken in a single day (nearly 8,500) and at the United Nations had a reputation as a shambling, slightly goofy operator. But in New Mexico, the lobbyist told me, many Democrats regard him with suspicion and dread. "He's not one of us—not a plebe," the lobbyist said. "He's not from here, wasn't raised here. [Richardson was born in California and spent part of his childhood in Mexico City.] He came here for one reason: running for office."

Richardson believes he's destined to be the first minority candidate to run on a national ticket. (When it became obvious Kerry was leaning another way for vice president this summer, Richardson dramatically withdrew his name from consideration.) A Kerry collapse in New Mexico could effectively snuff out Richardson's big plans—see what Bush's 2000 losses in Michigan and Wisconsin did for the careers of John Engler and Tommy Thompson. "His organization in the state will be activated," says Richardson aide Billy Sparks. "And the governor plans on campaigning extensively." I have no doubt George Bush can beat John Kerry in New Mexico. It's less clear whether he can overcome Bill Richardson's vanity.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.

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