- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A crowded field of Democratic candidates for governor will test their support among party activists at an event to determine who lands the top spot on the ballot in the June 3 primary race.

The pre-primary nominating convention on Saturday can serve as an early proving ground for candidates. However, critics say it diverts time and money from the goal of winning the primary and defeating Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in the November general election.

Five Democrats are seeking the gubernatorial nomination: Attorney General Gary King, state Sens. Linda Lopez and Howie Morales, Santa Fe businessman and political newcomer Alan Webber, and Lawrence Rael, a longtime state, local and federal government manager.

There also are contested primary races for other offices, including state treasurer.

To earn an automatic spot on the primary election ballot, candidates need the backing of at least 20 percent of the more than 1,500 convention delegates who could attend the event at Laguna Pueblo near Albuquerque.

Candidates will appear on the ballot based on the strength of their performance, with the top finisher listed first.

However, any candidate who misses the 20 percent threshold can still get on the ballot by submitting extra signatures on nominating petitions to the secretary of state.

The convention outcome doesn’t necessarily indicate what will happen in the primary. But nobody has won a party’s nomination after failing to get 20 percent of the convention vote.

Former two-term Gov. Gary Johnson had a difficult time at the 1994 Republican nominating convention when he first ran for office. He managed by a two-vote margin to earn a place on the primary ballot.

King finished third with 31 percent of delegate votes at the 2006 Democratic convention when he initially ran for attorney general. Yet, he went on to win the primary by more than 17,000 votes and got 57 percent of the vote in winning the general election.

State Democratic Party chairman Sam Bregman said the convention tests a campaign’s organizational abilities and the candidate’s message.

“It allows people to actually hear what candidates stand for and it shows whether or not someone is actually capable of rallying the support they are going to need obviously going into a general election,” said Bregman.

Former Democratic State Land Commissioner Jim Baca disagrees.

“It has very little relation to who wins the primary. It’s sort of inside game stuff. I think it really makes the candidates cater to a very small group of voters rather than going out and trying to get votes on their own platforms,” Baca said.

King is viewed as the front-runner in the gubernatorial primary in large part because of his name recognition as a two-term statewide elected official and the son of the late Bruce King, the state’s longest serving governor.

But King’s campaign manager, Jim Farrell, plays down convention expectations.

“We have no predictions, and don’t see winning or losing on Saturday as having much bearing on the campaign,” said Farrell. “Gary has never worked at being an insider and the pre-primary convention is principally an insiders’ contest, with all due respect to it.”

Webber’s campaign manager, Neri Holguin, said, “As a newcomer to the process, Alan is working hard to meet delegates. Will we reach 20 percent? We don’t know, and that’s why we turned in over 7,500 signatures to ensure we’re on the ballot.”

Rael said the convention helps motivate the Democratic voter base and he pledged to stay in the race even if he comes up short of needed delegate support.

Morales said the convention is useful because “it gets me into all parts of the state of New Mexico and meeting people.”


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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