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Madrid Edges Closer

By Jeff Jones
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Politics Writer
    Democrat Patricia Madrid has closed in on 50 percent support in the 1st Congressional District contest with embattled Republican incumbent Heather Wilson, a final Journal Poll found.
    Madrid had the backing of 49 percent of the likely voters polled in the Albuquerque-based district, compared with 45 percent for Wilson heading into Tuesday's election.
    The head-to-head results from the survey, conducted Wednesday and Thursday of 503 likely voters in the district, fall within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
    Six percent of district voters were undecided; 1 percent of those said they were leaning toward Madrid, while another 1 percent were leaning toward Wilson.
    With two days left before Election Day, Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff said the race that could help decide which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives now hinges on who shows up to cast their ballots on Tuesday.
    "Time is running out for Wilson," said Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc. in Albuquerque.
    The Journal Poll found New Mexico's other congressional contests aren't nearly as close as the $10-plus-million race between the four-term incumbent Wilson and Madrid, the state's two-term attorney general. Incumbents led in each race.
    Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., 2nd District Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and 3rd District Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M, had double-digit leads on their opponents— all underfunded political newcomers.
    All four Journal Polls in the Wilson-Madrid race have been close, but they've indicated a trend of increasing support for Madrid— the initial poll, conducted Aug. 25-31, showed Wilson with a three-point advantage that evaporated in subsequent surveys.
    The new poll found both candidates have solid support from their own parties: 82 percent of Democrats backed Madrid, while 86 percent of Republicans supported Wilson.
    Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 1st Congressional District by nearly 39,000 voters, and a crucial factor in Wilson's past success has been attracting support from across party lines.
    Madrid has seen a recent jump in support among voters ages 18-49: The new poll showed 55 percent of those surveyed in that age group back the attorney general, up from 48 percent in an Oct. 17-19 Journal Poll.
    A Madrid victory in the 1st District fight would make state political history: No Democrat has won the district since it was established in 1968 and neither of the Republicans— Manuel Lujan Jr. nor Steve Schiff— who held the seat before Wilson were voted out of office.
    Madrid has criticized Wilson throughout the campaign for her support of the Iraq war and President Bush, whose approval rating is lagging.
    Wilson has worked hard to portray herself as independent and has focused on raising questions about Madrid's ethics and competence.
    Sanderoff said the Iraq issue appears to have more traction among voters than the corruption arguments.
    He said by last count, 30 Republican U.S. House members across the nation were either behind in polling or in "toss-up" races with Democratic opponents.
    "That tells me there is a movement occurring nationally in moderate districts caused by Iraq and the president's approval rating," Sanderoff said. "Madrid's tying (of Wilson) to Republican leadership in Congress, the president and 'stay the course' in Iraq seems to be working."
    Many believe Wilson turned in a much better performance than Madrid during a recent live, televised debate. But Sanderoff said the 1st District race is not about whether voters personally like or dislike Madrid or Wilson.
    "Let's face it, it was a lopsided debate performance," Sanderoff said. "The fact there was no shift in polling numbers afterward demonstrates how entrenched the voters are.
    "Madrid supporters seem to be voting for what she represents, rather than her individual qualities as a candidate," Sanderoff said. "What she seems to represent is being an agent for change."
    Midterm elections, like this year's, historically draw fewer voters to the polls than years in which there is a presidential contest.
    "Low turnout helps Wilson because, among the most reliable voters, Madrid has only a two-point lead," Sanderoff said.
    Bingaman, a popular Democrat seeking his fifth term in the U.S. Senate, had support from 65 percent of voters surveyed statewide in the new Journal Poll. Republican challenger Allen McCulloch, a Farmington urologist, was backed by 23 percent.
    McCulloch earned the right to challenge Bingaman with a hard-fought primary victory that left him financially tapped. He hasn't been able to mount a broad, expensive advertising campaign to boost his name recognition.
    In southern New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District, Journal polling found incumbent Pearce with support from 59 percent of likely voters, compared with 33 percent for Democrat Albert Kissling, a retired minister.
    "It's a function of name recognition for Pearce. It's a function of the power of the incumbency and the money that comes from the power of the incumbency," Sanderoff said.
    Mix in the fact that the 2nd District is conservative in nature, and "all of them spell victory for Pearce," Sanderoff said.
    Journal polling in northern New Mexico's 3rd District found four-term incumbent Udall with support from 71 percent of likely voters, compared with 20 percent backing Republican Ron Dolin.