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High Primary Turnout Expected

By Jeff Jones and Michael Coleman
Journal Staff Writers
    It's decision time in New Mexico.
    Primary election polling places around the state will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today as voters choose nominees for an open U.S. Senate seat, three open U.S. House seats, judicial positions, the Public Regulation Commission, the Legislature and county government offices.
    Voters registered as Republicans or Democrats by May 6 are eligible to vote.
    The announcement by longtime Republican Sen. Pete Domenici that he would retire at the end of his sixth term opened up his seat and set off a political avalanche at the outset of the season. All three of the state's U.S. House incumbents are now seeking the Senate seat, in turn opening up their positions in Congress.
    In the state's 2006 primary election, fewer than 181,000 Republicans and Democrats voted in the top-tier contests— a figure that represented less than 21 percent of eligible voters.
    Secretary of State Mary Herrera predicted Monday that the four open congressional seats this year will help drive a record turnout today.
    "Voter turnout should be in the high 30s," Herrera said, referring to the percentage of registered voters expected to cast ballots today. "I'm expecting the highest turnout in history for a primary."
    Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver said turnout is up significantly this year, based on early voting.
    Absentee balloting is about twice as heavy as usual, and the number of ballots cast at early-voting locations was up by about one-third, Toulouse Oliver said.
    "Turnout is significantly higher for early and absentee (voters) compared to the 2004 and 2006 primary elections," she said.
    Bernalillo County, the state's most populous, has mailed out roughly 22,000 absentee ballots— about 15,900 of which have been returned. About 7,500 are from Democrats, and about 8,400 from Republicans.
    About 17,200 people cast ballots at early-voting locations in Bernalillo County. Democrats totaled about 9,300 of the votes and Republicans about 7,900.
    Republican voters will cast ballots for their party's presidential nominee, but presumptive GOP nominee John McCain locked up the national race months ago. However, he and Ron Paul will be on the ballot today.
    New Mexico Democrats voted for their party's presidential nominees in a Feb. 5 party-run caucus, and Hillary Clinton narrowly outpolled Barack Obama. But Santa Fe County Clerk Valerie Espinoza said she expects higher-than-average turnout partly because some Democrats think they can vote in the presidential primary.
    "Some people haven't quite realized they are not going to be able to vote (for Clinton or Obama)," Espinoza said.
    In Santa Fe County, 3,773 Democrats voted early, compared with 927 Republicans. Also, 1,495 Democrats requested absentee ballots while 421 Republican solicited them. It was not clear how many of those ballots had been returned in Santa Fe County on Monday.
    In Doña Ana County, which includes Las Cruces, 430 Democrats returned absentee ballots compared with 228 Republicans. In early voting, 2,012 Doña Ana County Democrats cast ballots compared with 1,312 Republicans.
    More Democrats are registered to vote than Republicans in both Santa Fe and Doña Ana counties.
    The highest-profile contest today is the statewide duel for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate between Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce. Rep. Tom Udall is unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
    Wilson and Pearce were making a high-energy sprint to the finish line.
    Wilson had a last-minute rally for votes Monday at an Albuquerque city park.
    We're "working the phones, walking neighborhoods, encouraging everyone to get out and vote— and take their friends and family with them," Wilson campaign spokeswoman Whitney Cheshire said.
    Pearce campaign spokesman Brian Phillips said Pearce made several Monday campaign stops in the Albuquerque area while campaign workers hit the phones for last-minute votes.
    "We've got our get-out-the-vote in full effect," Phillips said. "Both of our offices are teeming with people."
    Journal Staff Writer Dan McKay contributed to this report.