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Rep. Steve Pearce Will Run for Domenici's Senate Seat

By Matt Mygatt/
Associated Press
      New Mexico's two Republican members of Congress will be gunning for the U.S. Senate seat that GOP stalwart Pete Domenici is vacating.
    Steve Pearce, who represents New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District, will run for the seat Domenici has held since 1973, The Associated Press has learned. Pearce's decision was disclosed Tuesday — 11 days after it was revealed that Heather Wilson, representing the Albuquerque-area 1st Congressional District, would seek the seat.
    Pearce planned to send letters to friends and supporters Wednesday notifying them of his intent, a source close to Pearce told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to detract from Pearce's formal announcement.
    Pearce will publicly announce his candidacy in "the coming weeks,'' the source said.
    Domenici is retiring at the end of his term next year because he has an incurable brain disease.
    The announcement by Pearce and Wilson, coupled with Domenici's retirement, leaves three New Mexico congressional races in the 2008 election without incumbents. Democratic Rep. Tom Udall, representing New Mexico's 3rd Congressional, has decided to stay put. Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman won re-election last year.
    The Democrats so far have only one big gun announcing as a candidate for the Senate — Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez.
    Several lesser-known candidates also are running: Democrats Don Wiviott, a Santa Fe developer; Jim Hannan, finance director of the Santa Fe Community Housing Trust; and Leland Lehrman, who publishes an alternative newspaper in Santa Fe; and Republican Spiro Vassilopoulos, an oil industry investor.
    Lt. Gov. Diane Denish is among the other well-known Democrats considering the Senate race.
    Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque demographer who operates Research & Polling Inc., said Pearce's entry into the Republican primary will make the race more expensive for Wilson.
    "Obviously, both will deplete their financial resources in a Republican primary rather than save them in the general,'' Sanderoff said.
    The winner of the GOP primary likely would enter the general election with momentum and energy if the primary campaign is kept positive and above board, Sanderoff said.
    "If it gets nasty and the winner comes out wounded, it would be more difficult to build momentum for the general election,'' he said.
    Pearce's southern New Mexico district historically has tilted in favor of GOP candidates in statewide races, although Democrats account for about half of the registered voters.
    Wilson's represents a more moderate district, where Democrats have an edge by about 30,000 registered voters.
    The Republican candidates must walk a fine line during the primary, because they will need a quarter of the registered Democratic voters in the state to win the Senate seat, Sanderoff said.
    Wilson must appeal to conservative Republican primary voters, yet not turn off moderate suburban Democrats for the general election, Sanderoff said.
    "Pearce has been a pretty conservative congressman who represents a conservative district and he could maintain that message through the primary,'' Sanderoff said.
    "But come the general election, the Republicans who have been successful in statewide general elections — Pete Domenici, (former Govs.) Gary Johnson and Garrey Carruthers — all of them have run pretty middle-of-the-road general elections,'' Sanderoff said.
    Candidates who have run conservative general election campaigns have been less successful, such as Republican Colin McMillan's unsuccessful 1994 bid for the U.S. Senate, Sanderoff said.
    A Pearce-Wilson rivalry likely will energize voters for the primary election.
    "The turnout in the primaries has no where to go but up because it has been so low,'' Sanderoff said. "The Republican turnout in the last two primaries has averaged 18 percent — just dismal — and the Democratic turnout hasn't been much better.''
    Pearce, 59, won election to the state Legislature in 1996, and earned a spot on the influential House Appropriations and Finance Committee, which handles the budget. In his second term, Pearce moved into the leadership as chairman of the House GOP caucus.
    He sought higher office in 2000, but lost a race for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate.
    Pearce entered the 2nd District race after 11-term GOP incumbent Joe Skeen announced his retirement in 2002. Pearce won the nomination in a five-way primary contest and defeated Democratic state Sen. John Arthur Smith in the general election.
    In Congress, Pearce serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees the Interior Department and handles federal water issues and management of public lands.
    Pearce had about $582,000 in his congressional campaign account at the end of last month. The money can be used to finance his Senate bid. Wilson had about $755,600 in her campaign account.

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