If the battle for the presidency comes down to how the West is won, New Mexico's large Hispanic and Latino electorate could tip the vote this November.
In a state known for razor-thin elections, the Hispanic and Latino population in New Mexico embodies the state's reputation for independence and political diversity.
As a group Hispanic voters are neither homogeneous, nor loyal to one political party.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, some 45 percent of New Mexico's population is Hispanic. Among them, some native New Mexicans trace their ancestry back 16 to 20 generations to the Spanish settlers, the first of whom arrived in 1598, said Estevan Rael-Galvez, New Mexico's state historian.
Others include contemporary immigrants from Mexico and other countries such as the Dominican Republic.
"This is one of the unique factors of New Mexico," Rael-Galvez said. "It's a surprise to many people that multiple generations connect to this land and in many cases have no connection to other places other than New Mexico. You're talking 400 years of belonging to a place becomes a part of who you are."
Since the early 1900s, wide swaths of the Hispanic population have described themselves as pure Spaniards. But a census taken in 1790, however, showed that the population was very mixed, Rael-Garcia said. Spaniards had mixed with the indigenous population, among others.
Present-day New Mexico has the lowest percentage of foreign-born Hispanics among the 50 states, University of New Mexico political science professor Christine Marie Sierra said. For some with a long history in the state, there is a mental separation from newcomers.
According to a poll published Oct. 5 by Research & Polling, Inc., a non-partisan firm commissioned by The Albuquerque Journal, 62 percent of Hispanic voters surveyed support Obama, while GOP rival Sen. John McCain had 17 percent support, leaving some 21 percent undecided.
"[Obama] is doing well, but if the share of undecideds are flirting with McCain, that could cut into the bloc," firm president Brian Sanderoff said.
"It's no accident that Obama, a couple weeks ago, went to Espanola in the heartland of the Hispanic north," said Sanderoff. "He knows not to take that vote for granted."
Overall, Obama polled at 45 percent support from likely voters to McCain's 40 percent in New Mexico.
Among Hispanics and Latinos, McCain could gain new traction but the possibility seems remote, said Sierra.
"Hispanics amount to well over one third of the electorate - between 36 and 38 percent," Sierra said. "Turnout will become very important. It's not enough to indicate preference; it's important to vote."
Mobilizing voters is the great challenge in the state known as the "Land of Enchantment." Democratic Sen. John Kerry failed to carry the state in 2004, losing to George W. Bush by just 6,000 votes.
In 2000, the gap was stunningly narrow -- Al Gore won the state by a mere 366 votes, illustrating the potential power that a mobilized Hispanic voting bloc could carry.
This time around, Gov. Bill Richardson, a former presidential hopeful, has been tasked with reaching out to Hispanic voters and delivering the state's five electoral votes for the Democratic ticket.
"I still have arrows from not delivering it [for Kerry] four years ago," Richardson told the PBS program NOW in an interview.
"I've got to get out there and get the base out. And I've got to raise funds. ... I just believe that my state can make the difference in winning the presidency."
Obama's campaign has opened more than 30 campaign offices -- compared to McCain's 12 -- across New Mexico in a bid to court this pivotal constituency, blanketing large cities and small towns with phone calls, canvassing and grassroots outreach.
The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee have pledged $20 million for such organizing and advertising -- more than double the amount President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry spent combined on Hispanic outreach in 2004, according to The Las Vegas Sun.
The state Democratic Party is also encouraging early voting, which starts the third Saturday before the election, said Alex Flores, one of the youngest appointed voting members of the state party's Platform and Resolutions Committee.
Last election, national security was at the top of voters' concerns. "Party loyalty shifted because Bush was the president during 9/11," Flores said.
New Mexico had voted for the Democrat in the previous three elections going back to 1992.
In 2008, Sierra said the top concerns among both the Hispanic and general electorate are jobs, education and health care.
Daniel Garza, a chair of the National Hispanic Republican Assembly, said social issues will also play a role.
"Because Hispanics have a strong culture and traditions, we tend to be more conservative," he said, and added that the names of New Mexico's towns illustrate the Catholic nature of the state: Las Cruces means The Crosses, Santa Rosa is Saint Rose and Santa Fe means Holy Faith.
"We're seeing that more and more, especially around here, people are talking about the right to life issue and how we have to defend life," said Garza, who is based near Albuquerque. "Barack Obama is pro-choice, pro-abortion and Sen. McCain is pro-life.
During McCain's campaign stops in the state, he makes sure to emphasize his Western roots as a senator from neighboring Arizona.
Alicia Lueras Maldonado, a native New Mexican whose lineage goes back five to six generations in the state, said her father, a life-long Democrat, voted for President Bush in 2000 and 2004 because of his stances against same-sex marriage and abortion. But in 2008, she said, he has decided to vote for Obama due to the economic crisis and the management of the Iraq war.
But UNM professor Sierra said the Iraq war had the opposite effect for many Hispanic voters in 2004.
"I do think the war in Iraq swayed a number of Hispanics to vote for George W. Bush, who was effective with the message of 'stay the course' when people thought there was an end in sight," Sierra said.
Although much of New Mexico's Hispanic population is English-speaking, McCain and Obama have aired television and radio campaign ads in Spanish. Both have immigration ads airing in New Mexico, Sierra said, which signals their understanding of how diverse Hispanics are in the state.
Immigration, however, doesn't often get listed as a chief issue when voters volunteer their concerns -- issues like the economy and health care often take precedence.
"Talk to Latinos and Hispanics, not just in the traditional 'here's my immigration position, here's my civil rights position.' Talk to them as pursuing the American dream: health care, education, foreign policy, entrepreneurship, working women helping working moms," Gov. Richardson told NOW.
Tomás Garduño, the statewide organizer for the SouthWest Organizing Project, a non-partisan, non-profit group in New Mexico that educates minority citizens and mobilizes them to vote, said his organization targets those who have gone out to vote an average of once in six years. Their distance from the voting process often results from dissatisfaction with the winning candidate or a sense that they reneged on their promises.
This may explain the boost of support for the opposing political party.
"Obama has fired up a lot of folks here," said Sofia Martinez, a native New Mexican and environmental justice organizer. "People are tired of eight years that haven't done anything for working-class people here in New Mexico, where the majority is a poor state. People don't have health insurance. They need social programs. There are people with little economic opportunities. We'd like to see more support and money and priority given to big issues."
Eduardo Diaz, executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, said Latino and Hispanic voters are discerning.
"You can't view the Latino voters as a monolithic voting bloc," Diaz said. "People are concerned about things everybody else is -- the economy, health care, education, the war. They're going to go with the candidate that best reflects their concerns and who has in their view the best approach to dealing with issue they're most concerned with."