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Balloon Fiesta Stays Neutral in Election Year

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press
      Hundreds of thousands of people will pass through Albuquerque over the next several days. Their purpose — eat too many breakfast burritos as they sip hot chocolate and take in the spectacular sights that have come to define the annual international hot air balloon fiesta.
    The fiesta is about waking up early, watching balloons and dodging chase crews on the roadways.
    But this year — a presidential election year when Americans are worried about the economy and feeling the pinch of growing energy pressures — some groups are using the event to share their points of view with as many people as possible.
    Armed with his clipboard and dozens of voter registration forms, Chris Foster greeted some of the people who poured into balloon fiesta park early Saturday. He said fellow volunteers were stationed at other entrances and at park-and-ride locations throughout the city.
    Their goal has been to register 30,000 voters in 30 days, and the deadline to register in New Mexico is Tuesday, he said.
    "This campaign is very important to us," said Foster, who volunteers for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign. "This is a perfect thing here at the balloon fiesta."
    Across town, members of the international environment watchdog Greenpeace geared up to launch their new Stop Global Warming, Save the Climate balloon. Shaped and colored like the earth, the aim is to get people thinking about global warming, said organizer Kristin Wheeler.
    "This is a historical and cultural event for the state of New Mexico," she said of the fiesta. "It's a great way to elevate our message of stopping global warming to the thousands of people that will be here this week."
    Despite the political and environmental messages sneaking in around the fiesta, balloon fiesta officials have tried to keep politics off the launch field. They have strict rules about campaigning and handing out flyers, said spokeswoman Kathie Leyendecker.
    "This is a huge event. It's a spectator event. It's a family event," she said. "... You're pretty much looking up in the air and oohing and aahing at all the beautiful balloons and you don't need someone tugging on your shoulder."
    Between 800,000 and 850,000 people are expected for the nine-day event this year. Leyendecker acknowledged that everyone sees the fiesta as a great opportunity to sell their candidate or point of view.
    "That's just not what balloon fiesta is," she said. "Balloon fiesta is the premier, world ballooning event. This is a family reunion. This is were moms, dads and kids come to spend quality time together."
    Leyendecker's advice: "Take a couple of hours out of your day and just enjoy the beauty of balloon fiesta."
    And Saturday was a perfect day for this year's first mass ascension, in which hundreds of balloons — all shapes and colors — lifted off. Among the stars were the Darth Vader balloon, the Wells Fargo stagecoach and two bumble bees holding hands.
    With Darth Vader, the surrounding crowd roared as the ominous looking black balloon left the ground.
    The Wente family of Albuquerque was especially excited. The young Ethan Wente was dressed in the Vader costume he got for his birthday last month.
    "It was his idea. He knew Darth Vader was going to be here," said his mother, Christie Wente, who has been coming to the fiesta since she was a child.
    "There are new exciting balloons every year and seeing them rise up above you is better than looking at them from afar," she said. "There's nothing like being down here on the field."
    Three waves of balloons soared from the field just after dawn while tens of thousands of people watched from below. Part of the attraction for fiesta goers is that they can stand right next to the balloons as they are being inflated.
    More than 600 balloons are registered for this year's fiesta. It will also serve as the starting point for a cross-country gas balloon race that's expected to start Monday.

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