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Race for 'Battleground' States in US Presidential Election Comes to New Mexico


For the past several decades Republican presidential candidates have been able to count on winning in the Rocky Mountain states so they could concentrate their efforts elsewhere. But this year the Democrats are making inroads in those states and could possibly win Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, where polls show a tight race. VOA's Greg Flakus filed this report from Santa Fe, Capital of New Mexico, where five electoral votes are at stake.

In a cramped office in a shopping center a few kilometers from Santa Fe's historic plaza and state capitol building, a couple of dozen volunteers and campaign staffers from the Barack Obama campaign work to get out the vote for the Democratic candidate.

They use phones, computers and personal canvassing door-to-door in an effort to convince people to vote for Senator Obama.

One volunteer is 16-year-old Clarisa Lucero. She is too young to vote, but she wanted to be a part of this campaign.

"This is really important in history because this is the first black president if he does get elected," she said. "So it is just like it would be really cool to be able to say that I helped campaign and stuff."

Lucero comes from a large Hispanic family, which she says is divided between Republicans and Democrats, but she says most of her family is now leaning towards Obama.

Working next to her is a retired librarian, Peggy Rudberg, who says she admires Republican candidate John McCain for his military service and his ordeal as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, but that she believes Obama is the candidate more likely to bring home U.S. troops from Iraq.

"Obama is a negotiator," she said. "He is a person who is a little calmer, more willing to talk versus attack."

An hour's drive south, in the city of Albuqerque, there is a similar office full of busy volunteers working for the McCain campaign. One of them is Paula Riley.

"New Mexico is important," she said. "This is a battleground state. So we need to get out and make phone calls, we need to go door to door. We need to do everything that we can to work for John McCain and get this state's vote."

Many workers at the McCain office express a degree of desperation as polls show Barack Obama with a slight lead.

Lately, the economy has been the chief concern of voters here and across the nation. McCain volunteer Penny Rose says her big problem with Obama is that he wants to expand government spending and raise taxes at a time when the economy is weak.

"My husband is a small business man, my dad was a small business man and I am telling you, if you raise taxes and you put all these government programs in then you are going to kill jobs and that is going to kill our economy," she said.

Obama supporters note that he would only raise taxes on high-wage earners, but McCain supporters say the effect would be felt by all since those are the business owners who provide jobs.

University of New Mexico political scientist Gabriel Sanchez says the candidate who wins this argument is the one who will take this state's five electoral votes in November.

"The latest poll in New Mexico shows that roughly 67 or 68 percent of New Mexicans say that the economy is what is going to drive their voting behavior," he said.

Sanchez says many voters blame President Bush for the economic crisis and that even though McCain has tried to distance himself from the president, the voters tend to link them together by their party affiliation.

"As long as the economy is the number-one issue I do not think that bodes well for McCain," he said. "If something happens in the next few weeks that takes peoples' minds off the economy and on to some other issue that is good for McCain I think you could definitely see a shift."

Sanchez says there are two factors that could counter the slight lead Obama now has in New Mexico. One, pollsters tend to talk with likely voters, meaning those who have voted in the past, and this year could see a record turnout that includes people who have not voted in previous years. Two, the polls indicate that about 18 percent of New Mexico voters are still undecided and a strong shift one way or the other by them could determine the outcome.

Around 40 percent of New Mexico voters are Hispanic, but Sanchez says they are divided politically and do not vote as a bloc. He says McCain's shift on immigration policy, delaying the push for an amnesty until the border is secure, offended some Hispanics, but Sanchez says immigration is not very important in this state. He says social issues like abortion that link to religious beliefs have a greater impact.

"For example, President Bush did an excellent job of being able to identify social issues - abortion and gay marriage, for example," said Sanchez. "It is a pretty well-known standpoint with Hispanics in this country in that they tend to be politically liberal, so you look at public policy issues and they tend to identify with the Democratic platform, but they also tend to be conservative on social issues like gay marriage and abortion that can be hot-button issues."

Whatever the outcome of the election, Sanchez says New Mexicans have enjoyed the unprecedented attention they have gotten from the national campaigns this year. That may continue in years ahead, too, because Sanchez says New Mexicans have a tendency to shift support from one party to another over time.

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