Parties fear dirty tricks in New Mexico grudge match

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The Independent US

The Democrats say that winning New Mexico in next week's presidential election is a matter of honour. For many Republicans, it is more like a grudge match after their tantalisingly narrow defeat by just 366 votes in 2000. Either way, the state that regularly emerges from polls as the most forgotten is looming large in the battle for the White House.

The Democrats say that winning New Mexico in next week's presidential election is a matter of honour. For many Republicans, it is more like a grudge match after their tantalisingly narrow defeat by just 366 votes in 2000. Either way, the state that regularly emerges from polls as the most forgotten is looming large in the battle for the White House.

New Mexico may control only five votes in the electoral college - a fraction of what's at stake in battlegrounds such as Ohio and Florida - but it is punching above its weight in money, organisation and attention from the national parties.

John Kerry was in Las Cruces, a Democratic stronghold in the south of the state, over the weekend and was due to appear in Albuquerque last night. Bill Clinton is expected later in the week.

On the Republican side, President George Bush travelled to the conservative eastern side of the state (nickname: Little Texas) two days ago, while Vice-President Dick Cheney was in equally conservative Farmington in the north-west. Neither has excluded return visits before Tuesday.

At this late stage, both parties have all but stopped arguing about the issues and turned their attention to one all-consuming goal. "Getting people out to vote - that's it," Chuck Davis, a Democratic Party volunteer, said. In an election expected to produce a record turnout, that effort is fomenting suspicion of dirty tricks and out-and-out fraud - something for which New Mexico has a distinctly grubby reputation.

While voting rights groups in Ohio or Florida have focused their suspicions on the Republicans because they have the run of those states' governments, in New Mexico the boot is on the other foot. Although the political make-up of the state is now changing, it has been largely in Democrat hands for generations. And Bill Richardson, the Governor, is a former Clinton cabinet member with well-broadcast national ambitions.

"It's a matter of honour for Richardson," said Al Solis, the Republican Party county chairman in Las Cruces. "He made a promise to deliver the state for Kerry. Can you imagine what will happen if he doesn't deliver the state? I'm not saying there's definitely going to be fraud, because I don't know that. But when one party dominates for so long, some people begin to think they are invincible and above the law."

Las Cruces is New Mexico's Ground Zero when it comes to accusations of electoral malfeasance, since this is where the decisive 500 extra votes for Al Gore were found (by Mr Davis) six days after the 2000 presidential election. After years of controversy, there seems to be some tentative bipartisan consensus that the discrepancy was an honest mistake: someone misread a six for a one in a hand-written tally of ballots.

Still, the Dona Ana County election administration office has been regarded with deep suspicion by the Republicans. In 2000, the Republican Party's strongest precinct in Las Cruces was given one voting machine, discouraging many supporters when faced with interminably long lines. (This time there will be three.) In 2002, the county clerk was prosecuted and convicted of five counts of violating the state elections code and forced to resign.

It's not that one party is squeaky clean and the other mired in corruption. In conservative Roswell, in the eastern part of the state, there are reports this time that access to early voting is being restricted in the Hispanic, Democrat-leaning part of town. The point is that dirty tricks are a matter of opportunity, and in New Mexico it is the Democrats who have more opportunity.

If the race is close, it is because the state is slowly becoming whiter and more conservative. Retired people are moving into new suburbs from other parts of the country, while the dependence on agriculture is being supplanted by a burgeoning oil and gas industry.

In Las Cruces, the parties are battling for the allegiance and the participation of a sizeable Mexican-American constituency. On economic issues this group votes Democrat, but churches have stressed the importance ofabortion and gay marriage and swayed congregations towards the Republicans. Both sides agree religion is the biggest factor enticing registered Democrats to vote for Mr Bush. "What I keep hearing is, 'Bush is the only Christian in the race'," said Connie Richardson, a volunteer for the Democrats in Las Cruces. "It's not true, but it's what the churches are telling them."

Still, the Democrats hope that a high turnout will favour them because of big issues such as jobs and the war in Iraq. "Four years ago, we were hearing: 'What's the difference between the candidates?'" Bill Barnhouse, the Democratic Party county chairman, said. "This time, of course, there's none of that."

ELECTION DIARY

* No one wants a repeat of the Florida débâcle - unless it's in Hawaii. Though traditionally a sure thing for the Democrats, the latest polls show Mr Bush with a slight lead. How awful if Hawaii was the location of a month of recounts and legal tussle.

* Bruce Springsteen is to appear with John Kerry at two campaign rallies tomorrow in Wisconsin and Ohio. He will also join an eve-of-election rally in Cleveland. No word yet on whether the Democratic candidate, who once played bass in a school band, will play along with the Boss.

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