Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Analyst: Debate Has No Clear Winner

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
    Rep. Heather Wilson and New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid sparred Tuesday night on issues ranging from immigration to Iraq in the only televised debate of the 1st Congressional District campaign.
    The hour-long debate, hosted by KOB-TV Channel 4, gave voters a rare, unvarnished look at the candidates and their positions two weeks before Election Day.
    Some of Tuesday's toughest questions came from the audience and the candidates themselves.
    Madrid, a Democrat, asked the Republican congresswoman toward the end of the debate whether she thought President Bush is a good president.
    Wilson, who has tried to distance herself from the currently unpopular president during this year's campaign, never answered the question— even when given a second opportunity to do so by moderator Tom Joles.
    Meanwhile, Wilson seized on a remark Madrid made about the role of lobbyists in government.
    "I do think you have to be careful about taking large sums of money from lobbyists," Madrid said in response to a written question on the subject from a member of the audience. "But even if you do, it is only to give them access to let you know about what their concerns are. Certainly it's not to have you vote or rule in any certain way or to obligate you in any way."
    Wilson pounced on Madrid's remark and pointed out that Madrid had accepted $125,000 from a New Mexico casino owner. Most of it came six weeks after Madrid officially objected to a proposed, rival off-reservation tribal casino nearby.
    "I'm amazed at what I just heard," Wilson said. "No one buys access in my office. Any New Mexican that wants to talk to me, it's not conditional on paying at the door."
    The 1st District contest is one of the tightest in the nation. A Journal Poll published Sunday showed that Madrid has moved ahead of Wilson, with 45 percent of likely 1st District voters voicing support for her and 42 percent favoring Wilson. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
    Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff, a longtime New Mexico political watcher, said Wilson appeared to be more "at ease and poised" than Madrid. He said he thought Wilson's "no one buys access in my office" line was the strongest of the debate.
    But he said neither candidate landed a knockout blow.
    "Wilson is clearly a more skillful debater," Sanderoff said. But "quite frankly, between the World Series and 'Dancing With the Stars,' more people will hear about (the debate) filtered through the perceptions of other viewers."
    Throughout the debate, Madrid repeatedly linked Wilson with Bush, whose approval ratings are among the lowest of his presidency.
    "George Bush has been an unmitigated, abject failure, and Heather Wilson has been with him every step of the way," Madrid said at the opening of the debate.
    Meanwhile, Wilson repeatedly said "elections are about choices" and maintained that a vote for Madrid was a vote for more taxes and less security.
    "If you want higher taxes and a weaker national defense, you should vote for Mrs. Madrid," Wilson said. "If you want a strong national defense and strong economic growth, I would appreciate your vote."
Iraq war
    Madrid accused Wilson of failing to ask tough questions about intelligence leading up to the Iraq war and not being truthful with the public about what she did know.
    "For leading us into a war on failed manipulated intelligence, my opponent deserves to be fired," Madrid said.
    Wilson, who served on the Armed Services Committee when she voted to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq, said she questioned intelligence officials extensively and was assured there was a high likelihood that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. She said she based her decision more on her concern about biological warfare than Iraq's potential nuclear program.
    "I asked tough questions about the intelligence, and there were 81 Democrats who saw the same intelligence I did and voted to remove Saddam Hussein from power," Wilson said.
    The candidates also clashed on how and when to bring troops home. Wilson said immediate withdrawal would "embolden" terrorists and prompt them to step up attacks. She said the United States can't withdraw from Iraq until the Iraqi army is capable of controlling its own country.
    "Withdrawal decisions should be driven by commanders in the field, and not politicians in Washington," Wilson said. "Patricia Madrid has advocated quitting and coming home, and that is a plan for surrender."
    Madrid said she does not advocate immediate withdrawal but believes leaders in Washington need to begin formulating an exit plan.
    "I wish that George Bush and Heather Wilson would have relied on the military going in because they were advising not to go in in the first place," Madrid said. "We cannot have the military telling us when to get out; that is a decision left to the president and the Congress."
    On the unresolved question of U.S. immigration reform, Madrid and Wilson agreed that securing the border should be the first priority. Madrid said she supports "an earned path" to citizenship.
    "I think we need to bring people out of the shadows and give them the ability to go back and forth and work," Madrid said.
    Wilson said she opposes "amnesty."
    "I don't think someone who came here illegally should get to go to the front of the line," Wilson said.
    The crowd was made up of 100 Wilson supporters and 100 Madrid supporters.
    Joe Gustafson of Albuquerque, a Vietnam War veteran and Wilson backer, said Wilson "had all the right answers."
    "She voiced my opinions, loud and clear," Gustafson said. "I wish she would have supported my president more, but ... she didn't beat him up as Patricia did."
    Victor Raigoza of Los Lunas, a Madrid backer, said Madrid was the clear winner.
    "She showed that she won't go and kowtow to the president," Raigoza said. "She's going to be independent, and she's going to represent the people of New Mexico."
    Madrid: "My opponent ... bears particular responsibility for the failed intelligence on the run-up to the war" due in part to Wilson's past position on the House Armed Services Committee.
    "For leading us into war on failed, manipulated intelligence, my opponent deserves to be fired."
    Wilson: "I asked tough questions about the intelligence. And there were 81 Democrats in the House of Representatives who saw the same intelligence I did and voted to authorize the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
    Wilson: "I believe that even now, precipitous withdrawal (from Iraq) would encourage the terrorists, and would be a sign of weakness ..." She said she supports an orderly transition to the Iraqi military and said that country's army has made "tremendous progress" over the past year.
    Madrid: Vowed to call for an exit plan if elected. "So far, we've lost 2,803 men and women in Iraq. And I checked that ... before I came. 'Stay the course' is not a plan. Paralysis is not a plan. 'Wait for the next president to deal with it' is not a plan."
    Madrid: "Negative ads are really a reflection of what's at stake in this race— and what's at stake is power in this country, power in Washington. And the reason that my opponent is spending millions of dollars to ruin my reputation is because those people do not want to give up power."
    Wilson: "Patsy, it's almost like you've never run a negative ad in your life. And the truth is, you have. In fact, you've been misrepresenting my record of service for the people of New Mexico."
    Madrid: "We need to look at the profits insurance companies and HMOs are making in this country. They are sandwiched between the patient and the doctor and they are bleeding the system dry."
    Wilson: "I think we need a mixture of public and private solutions. ... We added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. After 40 years of useless talking about it, we did something pragmatic— not perfect, but pragmatic— to give people something they didn't have before."
    Wilson: "I oppose amnesty. There are tens of thousands of people standing in lines in embassies around the world who are trying to come here legally, and I don't think that someone who came here illegally should get to go in front of the line."
    Madrid: "We need to bring people out of the shadows, give them the ability to go back and forth and work. I believe in an 'earned path to power' where people work, pay their taxes, do not get into trouble with the law, that they ought to be able to apply for citizenship."
-Jeff Jones

E-MAIL writer Michael Coleman