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Political, Economic Scene in New Mexico Set to Affect Election

October 13, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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In this first segment of a series on New Mexico's role as a battleground state, Ray Suarez sets the scene in the Land of Enchantment, whose wide demographics and economy will affect the choice of voters this election.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, on the NewsHour and the Online NewsHour, we begin a week of reporting from and about New Mexico, as part of our ongoing “Big Picture” series. The idea is to listen to what people in different parts of the country have on their minds now as the election approaches.

New Mexico is very much a battleground state in the presidential campaign. Ray Suarez sets the scene.

RAY SUAREZ: October in New Mexico brings thousands from the rest of the state and the rest of the country to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains for the 10-day International Balloon Fiesta. And this fall, with hot-air balloons floating overhead, there’s hot political debate on the ground.

For many, the economy is key. That’s the case with first-time and still undecided voter Danny Lucero.

DANNY LUCERO: I would say mostly right now the economy and maybe like houses and jobs right now. The job market is real low, and people are just trying to struggle to make it.

THERESA LEGER-FERNANDEZ: We’re a tourist state, so when we were walking around today, we noticed that, even though you think there’s a lot of people, there weren’t as many people as there usually are here.

RAY SUAREZ: For others, like undecided voter Todd Tillman, it’s not just the economy.

TODD TILLMAN: It’s economic issues, the war that’s going on right now, the war against terror, as well as the one we have in Iraq, I mean, the war against terror is kind of hard to define in where it’s at, but I think those are the two main issues for me right now.

RAY SUAREZ: The presidential race has been neck-and-neck for months. Both candidates have made numerous visits to the state, fighting for its five electoral votes, votes that could help determine victory or defeat in November.

Being a battleground isn’t new for New Mexico. Recent elections have been so close it’s taken weeks, even months to name a winner, says Lonna Atkeson, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.

New Mexico now a battleground

LONNA ATKESON, University of New Mexico: We were the closest race in the country in terms of numbers in 2004 and 2000. In 2004, there were less then 4,000 votes between Bush and Kerry. And in 2000, there were less than 500 votes between Bush and Gore, so a very, very competitive contest at that level.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: That's the change the American people need, and that's what I will provide when I'm president of the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: So both candidates are fighting for every last vote. About 2 million people live here, about as many as in greater Pittsburgh, spread out across the fifth-largest state in the country.

LONNA ATKESON: New Mexico is a really interesting state and really diverse state, in that it's a minority-majority state. And so we have about 43 percent Hispanics, 43 percent Anglos, and about 9 percent to 10 percent Native American.

RAY SUAREZ: It's a mostly rural place with expansive landscapes and high mesas. Nearly a third of the land is owned by the federal government. And the state relies heavily on federal money, too, on military bases and research labs.

The public sector plays an unusually large role in New Mexico's economy. One out of every four workers here has a job with the federal, state or local government.

That translates into greater economic stability, especially in these jittery financial times, says Albuquerque economic development director Gary Tonjes.

GARY TONJES, President, Albuquerque Economic Development: I think it's disconcerting here as much as any other place. We haven't had really dramatic shakeups. We haven't had large numbers of foreclosures here. We're one of the better performing metros in the country in that regard. Our banks, our community banks throughout the state really are in pretty good shape.

Economy is an important issue here

RAY SUAREZ: But not everyone is doing well. The unemployment rate, still less than the national average, has ticked up nearly 1 percent in the last year. The state has made a concerted effort to attract new jobs, new industry, and a higher profile.

FILMMAKER: And action.

ACTOR: What is it you're offering to do for me?

RAY SUAREZ: This new show for the AMC network, called "Breaking Bad," could have been produced in one of Los Angeles' 400 soundstages. Instead, its cast and crew set up shop here on the new high-tech Albuquerque Studios.

The facility offers Hollywood producers high quality at low cost, in part because a new government program gives a 25 percent tax rebate for production in the state.

Rick Smerigan and Jeremy Hariton opened the $91 million facility a year-and-a-half ago.

NICK SMERIGAN, COO, Albuquerque Studios: The incentives that the state was providing were so good, so beneficial to the productions that we thought, if we could build a world-class facility here, that the productions would come simply because we're only an hour-and-a-half away from Los Angeles.

JEREMY HARITON, Executive Director, Albuquerque Studios: And the other piece of the program here in New Mexico is that they'll loan you money for your film. They absolutely make it work for a production to leave Los Angeles.

RAY SUAREZ: While the few urban areas are trying to diversify, the rural regions rely mostly on agriculture and mining, with many Hispanics living there.

Long before there was a United States, this was a province of the viceroyalty of New Spain, with its capital in Santa Fe since 1608.

This Hispanic population, the highest percentage of any state, has its own complexity, according to National Hispanic Cultural Center Director Eduardo Diaz.

Native population could play a role

EDUARDO DIAZ, National Hispanic Cultural Center: So these are people who can trace their heritage back to the earliest of the Spanish explorations and incursions here. So juxtapose that against the Mexicano immigrant who just arrived from Durango two months ago. So it's a very interesting dynamic that's occurring here in New Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: Hispanics traditionally vote Democratic, but this year -- as in most elections -- both parties are targeting the Spanish-speaking population over the airwaves.

And Democrats and Republicans have armies of volunteers registering new voters and trying to boost turnout among Hispanics.

Native Americans tend to vote Democratic, too. Twenty-two sovereign tribes call New Mexico home.

ALVIN WARREN, New Mexico Secretary of Indian Affairs: Well, it's really an interesting progression.

RAY SUAREZ: It's the only state with a cabinet-level secretary for Indian affairs.

ALVIN WARREN: You have a situation where, as of 1962, Native Americans were not even allowed to be involved in the political process, even at the basic level of voting, much less running for office or any other aspect of that.

And so now you fast-forward to the present. And what we see now is this tremendous effort throughout several of the tribal communities to increase voter registration, to actually ensure that people go out and cast their vote.

RAY SUAREZ: In the mountains north of Santa Fe, at the Santa Clara Pueblo, tribal employees are restoring the site of a thousand-year-old ancestral village. The pueblo's governor, Michael Chavarria, says the tribe gets most of its money from the federal government.

GOV. MICHAEL CHAVARRIA, Santa Clara Pueblo: So it's very important that the tribal members, you know, actually get out to vote in a couple more weeks on November the 4th. So it's very important that we utilize that strategy to help elect people into positions that are really going to help us, as native people in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Republicans are hoping to attract their base from regions across the state and to convince conservative Democrats and Hispanics to vote their way.

A recent poll showed 14 percent of registered voters say they still haven't made up their minds. That's nearly twice the national average of undecided voters.

VOLUNTEER: OK, guys, so we have 30 days until this election, but until then we have to knock on every door that's on your list so we can get these people to vote for Barack Obama.

RAY SUAREZ: So both sides are running daily phone bank operations...

VOLUNTEER: This is Rebecca. I'm calling from the Barack Obama campaign.

RAY SUAREZ: ... and canvassing at tailgate parties in college parking lots. The frenzy is only expected to grow in the next three weeks.

The race has been up in the air, but recent polls show Obama's campaign is taking off.