- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 5, 2010

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. | In a historic race in which New Mexico will elect its first female governor, the outcome could hinge on voter discontent with a man not even on the ballot: Gov. Bill Richardson.

The governor’s popularity has plunged amid corruption investigations as he nears the end of his second term, and his presence looms large in the race between Republican Susana Martinez and Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.

Mrs. Martinez frequently mentions Mr. Richardson in campaign appearances, and her TV ads feature pictures of Mrs. Denish alongside Mr. Richardson. Mrs. Denish has attempted to distance herself from Mr. Richardson even though she is his lieutenant governor.

“We know what we have had the last eight years. We have to look at those eight years and make sure we don’t have a third Bill Richardson-Diane Denish administration,” Mrs. Martinez told an Albuquerque crowd of more than 400 during the most recent debate.

Mrs. Martinez will become the nation’s first female Hispanic governor if elected, and she is giving the GOP strong hopes of victory by taking advantage of voter concerns about the economy and weariness with the Richardson administration.

The New Mexico race is one of two nationwide, along with Oklahoma, in which the GOP and Democratic nominees are women.

Mrs. Martinez’s message of change seems to resonate with New Mexico residents. She led in an Albuquerque Journal poll published last weekend and her support was approaching 50 percent when factoring in undecided voters who are leaning toward her.

“Our feeling is Denish and Richardson had a chance to make a difference in education and they didn’t do it,” said Lonnie Montgomery, a Las Cruces Democrat who is leaning toward Mrs. Martinez.

Mrs. Denish’s campaign struggles to separate herself from Mr. Richardson represent a reversal of fortune.

In early 2009, she was poised to take over as governor because Mr. Richardson had landed an appointment in President Obama’s administration.

But the Cabinet post fizzled and Mr. Richardson withdrew his nomination as commerce secretary because of a federal investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme in a highway financing deal. The investigation ended with no charges filed against Mr. Richardson or his top aides.

Still, the probe and a pending federal investigation into state investments have helped Mrs. Martinez’s campaign.

A prosecutor from southern New Mexico, Mrs. Martinez pledged to root out corruption in state government. She once was a Democrat but became a Republican before successfully running in 1996 for Dona Ana County district attorney against her former boss.

Although immigration historically hasn’t been a dominant issue in statewide New Mexico campaigns, Mrs. Martinez made it a centerpiece of her campaign during a five-way GOP primary.

That partly reflects her dealings with immigration issues as district attorney in Las Cruces, the state’s second-largest city, which is near the border with Mexico and Texas.

Mrs. Martinez has pledged to scrap a Mr. Richardson-backed law allowing illegal immigrants to get a driver’s license. Mrs. Denish agrees, calling the law “horribly flawed.” But Mrs. Martinez goes further, saying she will revoke licenses already issued.

Mrs. Denish, 61, who was Mr. Richardson’s running mate in 2002 and 2006, said in a recent interview she wasn’t part of his “inside circle.”

“We’ve had what I would consider a business relationship. We’re not social friends, really,” said Mrs. Denish, who ran a research and marketing company before becoming lieutenant governor.

In New Mexico, lieutenant governors run separately in the primary election and the winner joins the gubernatorial ticket - what Mrs. Denish calls a political “marriage of convenience.”

To help energize Democrats, Mrs. Denish didn’t ask Mr. Richardson for help. She recruited former President Bill Clinton for a campaign rally next week in Espanola, a northern New Mexico community where Hispanics account for at least 70 percent of the voting-age population.

New Mexico has the largest percentage of Hispanics of any state - and they traditionally favor Democrats. However, the Journal poll showed Mrs. Martinez doing better than average among Hispanics for a Republican.

Democrats hold a 1.6-to-1 advantage in voter registration in New Mexico, but Republicans can win when moderate-to-conservative Democrats abandon the party and independents tilt to the GOP.

Polls suggest that’s happening this year. Statewide, almost two-thirds of likely voters disapproved of Mr. Richardson’s job performance late last month, according to an earlier poll by the Journal, and nearly the same said the state was on the wrong track.

Democrat Jim McCole of Las Cruces, retired from the Veterans Administration, plans to vote for Mrs. Denish. He was asked whether he believed there was any truth to efforts by the Martinez campaign to link Mrs. Denish to Mr. Richardson’s corruption allegations.

“Not in real life,” he said. “The governor controls everything.”

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