Fierce Female Candidates in New Mexico

In the race for New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, both candidates have gleaming records to brandish at a bounty of swing voters. But so far, those voters don't have much more than mud to go on.

Well before the traditional Labor Day kickoff of New Mexico's campaign season, incumbent Republican Heather Wilson and Democratic Attorney General Patricia Madrid took the path of fierce resistance: a barrage of negative TV ads. The result? Discouraging approval ratings for both, but an essential dead heat that's anybody's guess.

"It's very hotly contested and close," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

How close? According to Brian Sanderoff's Research and Polling survey done early this month for the Albuquerque Journal, Wilson claims a mere three-point lead--45 percent to 42 percent. That has encouraged national Democrats, who have targeted the race as one of the potential keys to regaining control of Congress in 2007.

It won't be easy. Since its creation 37 years ago, the 1st CD has stayed in the Republican column, despite a Democratic voter majority of 46 percent to 35 percent.

Wilson, an Air Force veteran who serves on the National Security Committee, won her first election in 1998, with a heart-warming "fighting for families" election theme. As she went on to dispatch three successive Democrats in subsequent elections, she built a reputation as a sterling constituent servant and a strong supporter of the GOP status quo. Despite the latter, in each election cycle, she billed herself as a moderate--the key to winning the Democratic swing voters critical to Republican success in the district.

Now, with her support for the war in question and charges that she's too close to President Bush, she's attempting to shift voter interest to Madrid's perceived lack of attention to a public corruption scandal now embroiled in federal court. In a series of hard-hitting TV ads, Wilson charges that Madrid came too late to the anti-corruption table, indicting key witnesses only after they testified in federal court. Those charges have thus far overwhelmed Madrid's record for fighting consumer fraud, domestic violence and Internet sex predators.

In an effort to turn the spotlight, Madrid is hammering Wilson's efforts to appeal to moderate voters. One ad focuses on Wilson's nearly $400,000 in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry. Another questions her support for the war in Iraq. "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 spend $300 billion on it," the ad intones. "Heather Wilson even missed a vote on setting a timetable for withdrawal so she could attend a fund-raiser with George Bush. That's not independence, not by a longshot."

Walsh said she's seen little data to show whether such negativity helps or hinders women candidates. "The one thing that has happened in some campaigns," she said, "is that the media can play it up. They'll do these headlines of 'catfights' as opposed to if it's men who are going negative. Then it's just politics. There's an expectation somehow that women won't be negative, so when they are, people are surprised by it."

Ironically, Sanderoff said, both candidates are being attacked on what ought to be their strengths. "We've got an attorney general being accused of being soft on white-collar crime, and a congresswoman with great national security credentials accused of not speaking up on our national security issues," he said.

The irony for Walsh is that neither candidate can campaign on what should be their greatest strength in a year when voters are questioning the nation's direction. "When the public is looking for a change," she said, "women are a change. Your situation, with two women running, is a bit different. Patricia Madrid doesn't just get to stand up and look different by the mere fact that she's a woman."

Missing in the candidates' bombast is any talk of what would traditionally be considered "women's issues," like stronger families and better schools--the kind of concerns that initially propelled Wilson to Congress. "The whole tone of politics has turned very negative," Walsh said. "Why don't women do this differently and not attack each other? These are high stakes, and the general wisdom among political consultants is negative works."

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