Both major U.S. parties are gearing up for next Tuesday's mid-term election, which could possibly tip the balance from a Republican to a Democratic majority in congress. The parties are focusing their efforts on a handful of races, including one in the western city of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
This race is considered a toss-up. Both candidates are women. Heather Wilson, the incumbent, is a Republican. She is an Air Force veteran who studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. Her opponent is New Mexico Attorney General Democrat Patricia Madrid.
Albuquerque Journal reporter Michael Coleman says Madrid is well known.
"She was an aggressive attorney general,” he said. “She did a lot on consumer fraud. She did a lot on child exploitation. She is running on that record, and even more than that, she is running against President Bush and the status quo."
For Democrats, this race is about the president, whose popularity in the district has sunk to 36 percent, according to a recent poll by the Albuquerque Journal. For Republicans, the contest is about local candidates, their performance and views on issues such as national security.
Pollster Brian Sanderoff says this race is important for both parties.
"Because it is sort of a microcosm of what is happening in about 40 other congressional districts around the nation,” he noted. “If 15 congressional seats switch from Republican to Democrat, then the Democrats will take over the United States House of Representatives."
If six Senate seats change hands, the Democrats would form the majority in that body. A switch in just one congressional house would give the Democrats more clout in framing legislation.
The thought of Democrats regaining control of congress motivates this Republican worker.
"I am a volunteer on behalf of the Republican Party,” she said. “I would like to let you know that Democrats want to seize control of congress this year, and - hello?”
Hour after hour on the telephone, she calls prospective voters. Some hang up, but every so often, an undecided voter is persuaded.
Retired Marine Corps Colonel Allen Weh is chairman of the state Republican Party.
"We are getting out the vote,” he said. “We are getting out the Republican base. The base is that block of Republican voters that are largely loyal to the Republican slate."
But many in New Mexico vote a split ticket, that is, they cast their votes in different races for member of both parties. The ballot has candidates for governor, state and local offices, as well as congress, and voters may select Republicans in some races and Democrats in others.
A Republican has always held this Albuquerque congressional seat, despite the larger number of Democrats in the district.
Joe Griffenberg, who was eating his lunch at a local diner, is one of those crossover voters.
"There are three Democrats that I will vote for, and I think everybody else, I am going to vote Republican,” he said.
Both parties are targeting such swing voters, and the one-in-six voters without a party affiliation.
Democrats and Republicans are also making appeals to the district's Hispanics, who make up more than 40 percent of the population. New Mexico Hispanics tend to register as Democrats, but enough voted for Heather Wilson to keep her in Congress. A recent poll shows her Hispanic support is dropping.
University of New Mexico political scientist Christine Sierra says the war in Iraq is on the mind of the voters, including Hispanics. She says in 2004, the issue helped President Bush narrowly win the state, but now she says the issue is hurting Republicans.
"My sense is that what happened in 2004 that worked for the Republicans and getting Bush to carry the state and cut into the Hispanic vote here, is now working against the Republicans, and that's foreign policy," she explained.
This suburban voter, however, believes the Republicans are stronger on national security.
"The issues for me are the war, and I agree with the president and what he is doing, and I am hoping that the election will turn into a Republican positive election so that things can continue as they are," she said.
At the local meeting hall of the group Veterans of Foreign Wars, many also say they will vote Republican. But a recent poll shows the issue of Iraq is working against the party. A total of 52 percent of local voters say the war in Iraq was a mistake. Few support an immediate pullout, but a majority are anxious to see an end to the conflict.
Paul McConnell is a Vietnam veteran who wants the troops home quickly, and he volunteers for the Democrats.
"I am an independent, I am not a Democrat or a Republican. And I feel like the war was wrong, terribly wrong,” he said. “I do not see George Bush as being a compassionate conservative. And Patricia Madrid has the same set of values that I seem to have."
Other issues important to Democrats include raising the minimum wage and providing health insurance for the many who lack it. For Republicans, key issues include lowering taxes and restricting abortion.
Democrat Richard Romero says Republican Heather Wilson is a strong candidate. A veteran New Mexico politician, he ran against her twice in this Albuquerque district, and lost both times.
"The incumbent beat me, I mean [she] got more votes,” he said. “Whoever gets the most votes, wins. It is a tough district for a Democrat."
He says the district is conservative, home to a military base and a national laboratory that relies on defense-related funding. But he says that in this election, the Republican candidate is linked to an unpopular president and a party embroiled in recent congressional scandals.
"And so I think Democrats have a good shot, not only here but nationally, to turn it around. Then it will be up to them to see if they can prove that they can do better," he added.
Both parties have held last-minute rallies to inspire their supporters.
As a sign of the importance of this race, House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi came from Washington to offer support for Patricia Madrid. Local Republican luminaries have turned out for Heather Wilson.
Republican Wilson trailed by three points in the latest poll, but because of the survey's margin of error, the race is really a toss-up, and like other key races around the country, could go either way.