GOP Rep. Wilson Faces Tough Challenge in Democratic-Leaning District

Republican Rep. Heather Wilson has bested more than one tough opponent in her Democratic-leaning House district, where many voters depend on military and defense jobs.

But this year, the five-term incumbent's toughest challenge is overcoming her own party.

Albuquerque voters' distaste for President Bush, Republicans and the war in Iraq have helped give a slight advantage to Wilson's opponent, the state's Democratic attorney general, Patricia Madrid.

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Wilson, an Air Force veteran known for occasionally bucking her party, has tried to make the race about local issues. She has struggled against a blitz of negative ads by Democrats contending that a vote for Wilson is a vote for Bush and the war.

Voters now parrot the message when asked about the race.

"It's not that she's doing a bad job, it's just that she seems like a puppet for Bush," said Leonard Zamora, a Democrat who had not decided for whom to vote. "It's time for a change."

Despite the Democratic tilt of her constituency, Wilson has been well-liked in her district, which is home to Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Laboratories.

"If it were not for Iraq and the president's low approval rating, I think Heather Wilson would win comfortably," Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff said.

Instead, Madrid's intense focus on national issues has made the Albuquerque-area 1st Congressional District a mirror of the difficult national landscape for Republicans.

Recent polls have found just 38 percent of metro-area voters approve of Bush — the same as voters nationally. Statewide, 52 percent say the Iraq war was a mistake.

One of the toughest questions for Wilson this campaign has been whether she thinks Bush is a good president. The normally poised and prepared Wilson sidestepped the question at a recent debate, but she was pressed three more times at a news conference the next day.

"I think my job is to stand up for the people of New Mexico, and history will be the judge of the president and of me," she finally answered.

Even the Republican page scandal has touched the race. Wilson served on the board overseeing the page program from April 2001 to January 2005. She has said she knew nothing of former Rep. Mark Foley's sexually explicit electronic messages to pages.

A poll taken Oct. 17-19 by Sanderoff for the Albuquerque Journal showed Madrid with a 45-42 percent lead — her first of the campaign.

Democrats have vowed that this year they will beat Wilson, while the GOP has gone all-out to protect her. Combined, the parties have spent more than $3.5 million on the race while outside groups such as the National Association of Realtors and EMILY's List have dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the contest.

Voters in the district narrowly chose Democratic presidential candidates Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and Vice President Al Gore in 2000. But since the district was created in 1968, no Democrat has held the House seat, and no incumbent has ever lost.

Experts have called Madrid the toughest opponent Wilson has faced. Madrid is a popular Hispanic elected official running in a district where more than a third of the voters is Hispanic.

Madrid struggled early on to respond when Wilson raised questions about her role in Democratic state government scandals.

And recently, Madrid stumbled during a debate watched by an estimated 65,000 viewers. Answering a question about ethics, Madrid said donations from lobbyists "give you access to let you know their concerns."

Wilson drew cheers when she shot back, "No one buys access in my office."

During another question about how she would prevent a tax increase, Madrid paused awkwardly for several seconds. The footage was made into an ad for Wilson.

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