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House Race Is Close, Intense With Both Wilson, Romero on Attack

By Miguel Navrot
Journal Staff Writer
    Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., has long defined herself as a political independent dedicated to New Mexico.
    Democratic state Sen. Richard Romero, who is making his second attempt to unseat Wilson, boasts of a centrist record that has earned good marks from both business groups and unions.
    Two years ago, the two fought a race many considered close until election night. Wilson ended up with a winning margin of about 10 percentage points.
    This year, polls are showing a closer race than before.
    Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff attributes Romero's apparent gains this election to name recognition.
    Sanderoff said this is Wilson's "first tough race" since winning a special 1998 election to replace the late Rep. Steve Schiff.
    The 1st Congressional District horse race has fostered bitter personal attacks between the two. Republicans in one ad stress that Romero "even voted against the death penalty for child molesters who murder their victims." Romero's camp claims Wilson has provided a "favor to terrorists" with a "no" vote earlier this year on a measure involving airline cargo inspections.
    Romero says child molestation is disgusting, but he objects to capital punishment on all grounds. Wilson says the cargo bill in question was unfeasible and she considers the charge an attack on her patriotism.
    The two have also squabbled over debates but have met twice so far and will meet again at 4 p.m. today in a debate to be televised on KOB-TV.
    The negative campaigning echoes their previous election dance.
    In 2002, Wilson's campaign accused Romero of taking taxpayer-funded junkets, supporting same-sex marriages and skipping Statehouse votes, a charge repeated this year. Romero's camp accused Wilson of giving multi-million-dollar tax breaks to now-bankrupt Enron, voting to give away private medical records and supporting polluting mining companies.
   
Positive moments
    But this race isn't all negative campaigning.
    Through much of this year, Wilson has made public appearances at Albuquerque businesses, stocking grocery shelves, assisting a dentist and donning a McDonald's hat at a local franchise.
    Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wilson highlights 10,700 new jobs created this year in the state through August and maintains the national economy "is strong and growing new jobs."
    Wilson also trumpets her involvement in the new Medicare prescription drug card program, an effort intended to reduce pharmaceutical costs for some seniors. Critics contend the sign-up process can be confusing, but Wilson says the program is a needed benefit for lower-income seniors.
    In campaign appearances, Wilson boasts about the federal government's increased spending on schools. The government, under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for fiscal 2004, is spending nearly $25 billion nationwide— $10 billion more than was spent in 2000.
    Wilson advocates adding thousands more active duty soldiers and special operations troops to the military, is a supporter of the Patriot Act and recently voted for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage nationwide.
    One of Wilson's highest-profile roles during the past congressional session came in the wake of Janet Jackson's infamous wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl. Wilson, a backer of increased fines for broadcasters violating government decency standards, objected strongly during House hearings, saying her youngest son had seen the show.
    Wilson, her voice choked with emotion, chided Viacom Inc. president Mel Karmazin.
    "You knew what kind of entertainment you're selling, and you wanted us all to be abuzz, here in this room and on the playground and my kids' school," Wilson said. "... It improves your ratings, it improves your market share, and it lines your pockets."
   
Richardson ally
    Romero, the state Senate's president, is leaving his 12-year career in the Roundhouse with hopes of continuing in Congress. A former school principal, Romero has been a close ally of Gov. Bill Richardson over the past two years.
    In the past two sessions, Romero backed proposals to eliminate taxes on food and medicine, reduce the state income tax and give financial incentives to film productions in New Mexico. He has also pushed for humane animal euthanasia.
    He also serves on the state's military base preservation committee.
    Romero's main campaign issues include reducing the swelling federal deficit, re-writing the Medicare drug plan in hopes of further bringing down costs, and pushing for a larger international coalition to help in Iraq.
    Calling the No Child Left Behind Act a top-down piece of legislation, Romero wants federal education funding changed so teachers and parents have more say in how the government funds education.
    In Iraq, Romero argues that more U.S. troops are needed to stabilize and secure the country, a point he and Wilson disagree on. He objects to the way President Bush embarked on the war but says the United States cannot allow Iraq to degrade into further chaos by withdrawing.
    Romero calls himself a "fair trade" proponent, criticizing overseas outsourcing and pledging to help foster further job growth in New Mexico.
    On prescription drugs, Romero wants the federal government to use its massive buying power to negotiate directly with drug companies to lower prices.
    One of Romero's chief criticisms of Wilson is on her voting record. Independent voting record studies show the incumbent has voted with the Republican Party and President roughly 90 percent of the time, Romero points out in ads.
    Wilson's backers say many of the votes were procedural matters and bipartisan resolutions and bills. Her camp points to police and firefighter union backers who maintain she is an independent voice in the House.
    Wilson soundly trumped Romero in the 2002 election, but both campaigns say they expect a close race this time around.
    Recent registration drives and the 2002 post-election purge of inactive voters has changed the district's complexion, Sanderoff noted.
    According to the Secretary of State's Office, there are slightly fewer Republicans percentage-wise now than there were two years ago, 34 percent versus 36 percent, respectively. Democrats still make up roughly 47 percent of the district, while independent voters have grown.
    Independent voters— those with no party affiliation— now make up 16 percent of the congressional district, up from 14 percent two years ago.
    Televised debate
    Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and Democratic challenger Richard Romero will face off in a debate today at 4 p.m. The debate will be aired on KOB-TV.