WASHINGTON – In one of the most rancorous House races of the year, New Mexico Republican Rep. Heather Wilson and her opponent, Democratic State Attorney General Patricia Madrid, have been sparring publicly for months in local newspaper reports and negative advertisements.
In the daily tit-for-tat, Madrid accuses Wilson of ignoring important questions leading up to the war in Iraq and being a rubber stamp for the Bush administration. Her supporters call her the best candidate to face Wilson since the representative's first election in 1998.
In return, Wilson, who many say is in the political fight of her life, accuses Madrid of ignoring corruption in the state despite her being the top law enforcement official there.
Wilson's campaign has issued TV ads questioning why it took so long for the attorney general to prosecute charges of corruption involving former State Treasurer Robert Vigil, who is currently on trial in federal court on 24 counts related to racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy, bribery and facilitating kickbacks in exchange for business with the state.
Critics contend that Madrid brought charges only after the federal case was under way and when it was politically expedient, and that she is now hurting the federal case by indicting its witnesses.
Wilson declined to discuss this matter — or any other issue — with FOXNews.com. Wilson's campaign manager Enrique Knoll, however, repeatedly tried to steer an interview to Madrid and her actions — or, as Knoll charges, lack thereof — in prosecuting a state kickback scandal.
"I think a lot of people have a lot of serious questions about Patricia Madrid and her role as attorney general," Knoll said. "Both on corruption and on pay-to-play politics."
In ads responding to Wilson's charges, she rebukes the five-term incumbent for the attacks and reminds voters that Wilson has taken campaign contributions from corruption-embattled former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Madrid's office did not return repeated phone calls for an interview, though surrogates appeared happy to rise to her defense. State and national Democrats call Madrid a crime fighter with eight years experience in the attorney general's office fighting big oil and pharmaceutical interests and going after sexual predators. It doesn't hurt that she's a Latina in a district that is 42 percent Hispanic, they add.
"She is the best candidate that we could put up against Heather," said Cate Stetson, vice chairwoman of the Bernalillo County Democratic Party.
Stetson said if Madrid can't beat Wilson, no one can. She said the ad wars are indicative of how tight the race is.
"It's extremely nasty, and it's extremely close," Stetson said, adding that the unpleasantness is evidence that both candidates are "working very hard."
According to a KOBTV/Survey USA poll of 503 likely voters, Wilson leads Madrid 51 percent to 46 percent with a margin of error of 4.5 points. In a late August poll of likely voters by the Albuquerque Journal, Wilson led Madrid 45 percent to 42 percent, with 10 percent undecided.
"It's a toss up — an interesting race," said Nathan Rothenberg, analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report election tip sheet.
In the advertisements, neither woman is really embracing her party. This is likely due to the nature of this greater Albuquerque district. Though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 1st District by at least 10 percentage points, a Democrat hasn't held this seat in decades. Wilson, 45, has had the job the last 10 years.
In fact, in 2004, Democrats insisted Wilson's time had come — again, tying her to unpopular Bush policies — but she beat her opponent, Richard Romero, 54 percent to 46 percent.
On the other hand, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., beat President Bush 51 percent to 48 percent in 2004. Recent polling shows Bush with a 39 percent approval rating in New Mexico.
National Republican Congressional Campaign spokesman Alex Burgos said the Democrats will fail by trying to tar Wilson as a rubber stamp for Bush.
"Heather Wilson has been a model of independence and has demonstrated a willingness to stand up for her constituents, even when it means going against the White House and Republican leaders," he said.
As for Madrid, Burgos parrotted the local GOP strategy, which turns the tables on and borrows from the Democratic talking points..
"The whole treasurer's trial going on [is] calling into question her unwillingness to do something about the culture of corruption that exists in New Mexico," he said.
"The general temperament is we're pretty confident Heather will win," said Jonah Cohen, spokesman for the New Mexico Republican Party. "Patricia Madrid is kind of entangled in corruption issues here in New Mexico and that is hurting her bid against Heather Wilson."
With a tightrope to walk, the Wilson campaign is not selling her post on the House Intelligence Committee and her military background — she graduated from the Air Force Academy and served in the Air Force as an officer from 1978 to 1989, and as a planning officer for NATO — as hard has it has in previous years.
In fact, when asked about Wilson's position on the war, Knoll was non-committal. Her detractors say they aren't surprised.
"What good is it to be on the Intelligence Committee or being in the military if you are going to rubber stamp a [war] agenda with no consideration," asked Matt Farrauto, executive director of the New Mexico Democratic Party.
He argued that Republicans "have proved themselves so incompetent, mismanaging this war."
Democrats acknowledge that they have to get out the vote if they want to topple Wilson, a problem they have confronted before. But, said Martin Hibbs, chairman of the Torrence County Democratic Party, in the rural part of the district where politicians don't often tread, the excitement for Madrid was palpable.
"We're seeing lots of signs, lots of activity and excitement in this campaign that I haven't seen in a long time," he said.
"We have some strong Democrats here. Statistically, they hadn't come out [to vote] in numbers before," he added. "I think if we can pull the local dedicated Democrats out of their homes to vote, there is a big chance Patricia Madrid will be out next Congresswoman."
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield noted that the negative ads in this campaign have brought it national attention. But she insists the attacks aren't working against Madrid.
"It hasn't moved the polling," she said. "[Wilson] has been on the air with these ads for six weeks now and the polling its still dead-heat, dead-heat, dead-heat."