Cockfighting appears to be on its last legs in New Mexico, one of only two states where it is legal. And the reason might have something to do with the race for the White House.

Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat running for president, has come out strongly in favor of a ban on cockfighting. Legislation to outlaw the bloodsport has come up from time to time in New Mexico, but until recently, Richardson refused to take sides.

Some suspect he is positioning himself for the White House and does not want to look as if he comes from a backward state.

"The bottom line is that if Bill Richardson is not running for president, this wouldn't be an issue," said Leo Lopez, a 42-year-old Hobbs native who has been attending matches since he was 12. "He doesn't want it to be known that he's from a state with cockfighting."

Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said that in the past, the governor believed a debate over cockfighting would distract attention from other priorities.

"But we've made a lot of progress in the last four years," Gallegos said recently. "We have more work to do, but he thinks we can put this together now."

Last Friday night, amid the dust, clucking roosters and screeching loudspeakers at a cockfight at Tommy's Game Fowl Farm in Hobbs, there was grumbling agreement that political forces have finally lined up against the sport.

"It's history," said Jack Cairnes, a former Washington state lawmaker who moved to New Mexico 18 months ago to raise and fight his roosters. "Some of the other fellows might think we still have a chance, but they're not being realistic."

Tommy Booth, the 81-year-old owner of Tommy's, said the governor has done a good job in general, but he feels betrayed: "I'm going to vote for him for president. But I'll hold my nose when I'm doing it."

During a cockfight, two roosters fitted with blades or gaffs on their legs are placed into a pit and fight until one is dead or badly wounded. Although gambling on the fights is illegal, spectators openly wager on the outcome.

The only other state where cockfighting is legal is Louisiana.

Arguing before a legislative committee Monday in Santa Fe, Cairnes said a ban is being promoted by a "small group of extremists traveling from state to state interfering with rural life." He said it was a rural-versus-urban issue that "borders on being a racist issue" because many cockfighters are Hispanic.

Opponents of cockfighting say it cruel to animals and should have been outlawed long ago. Several New Mexico counties and cities already have imposed bans.

"What cockfighting amounts to is intentional killing of animals for entertainment and for profit," said Democratic Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, the bill's sponsor.

A current version of the bill would make a first-time offense a misdemeanor; after that, it would be a felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison.

New Mexico's three Roman Catholic bishops support the ban. "We're talking about taking an animal and strapping on razor blades for recreation," said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At Tommy's last weekend, one bird owner usually left the pit cradling his live rooster like a football while the other hauled off a dead fighting cock by the legs. Drops of blood were visible in the dirt and on the concrete floors around the three fluorescent-lighted pits, abutted by theater-style seating for up to 500 people.

"I'm a weekend warrior. This is a hobby," said Noe Arguello, a 36-year-old heavy-equipment operator from Big Spring, Texas. "We're in New Mexico for the simple reason that we don't have to look over our shoulder to attend a cockfight."