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House Fights Coming

Voters going to the polls in New Mexico and Alabama today will set up at least three competitive House races in the fall.

And while most of the results of today’s primaries appear preordained, the races are not without some intrigue.

New Mexico held its Democratic presidential caucus in February and has neither a gubernatorial nor a Senate race on the ballot this year to rally voters. Low turnout, possibly in the “high teens,” is predicted for today’s primaries — a factor that could add some uncertainty to primaries generally considered the frontrunners’ to lose, said Albuquerque Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff.

Voters will, however, crown the Democratic challengers to Republican Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce in the 1st and 2nd Congressional districts — both races that national Democrats have targeted.

In the Albuquerque-based 1st, 2002 Democratic nominee and state Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero is heavily favored over emergency room physician Miles Nelson for a second shot at Wilson, now in her fourth term.

“Romero is definitely ahead,” said one national Democratic source.

“We’re focusing on the incumbent Heather Wilson,” said Romero, whose recent $60,000 TV ad buy — set to run through today — focuses entirely on attacking Wilson and President Bush.

Romero has also far outpaced Nelson in the money chase, posting roughly $350,000 on hand through May 12. Romero already has several events in the works for this summer and hopes to raise about $2.1 million for the general election.

But Nelson, who concedes that his campaign is “running on fumes,” maintained that an internal poll conducted recently showed him in a statistical dead heat with Romero.

He isn’t ceding any ground to a man who has been endorsed by many prominent organizations — from the powerful National Education Association to the Human Rights Campaign to NARAL Pro-Choice America, as well as by popular New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). Since early May, Nelson has been running ads on broadcast and cable, as part of a $50,000 ad buy also scheduled to run through the primary.

Despite his long-shot candidacy, Nelson has attracted a following among “liberal white voters,” said one New Mexico Democratic operative. He has plastered Albuquerque with some 2,000 yard signs and has billboards up along the expressways.

“What Richard is trying to do is make sure Miles Nelson doesn’t get 40 or 42 percent of the vote,” the operative added.

In the southern tier 2nd district, the Democratic race — between ex-state Rep. Gary King, the son of popular three-term former Gov. Bruce King, and former Congressional aide Jeff Steinborn — has been more heated. Steinborn has accused King, who only established a residence in the district late last year, of being a carpetbagger.

Steinborn, whose father is the former mayor of Las Cruces, the district’s largest city, has hammered this theme relentlessly in both mailings and radio spots.

“We need a Congressman, not a King,” Steinborn said.

King, the frontrunner whose own radio spots have not been combative, bristled at Steinborn’s criticisms, pointing to his family’s New Mexico political roots and pledging to remain focused on issues such as health care and job creation.

“The King name is kind of synonymous with the Democratic Party in New Mexico,” said King. “It’s like attacking your own party.”

King showed nearly $50,000 on hand through May 12 compared with Steinborn’s roughly $44,000.

“King has extremely high name recognition, and I think he probably is the better candidate,” said one Democratic Party strategist.

In an odd twist, the fact that Steinborn’s identical twin brother is helping him run the campaign (in April, Steinborn fired his campaign manager) has triggered rumors that Steinborn may be using his brother as a stand-in on the campaign trail without letting anybody know. But Steinborn scoffed at such suggestions.

“I can assure you and the residents of New Mexico that they are getting the genuine article,” he said.

As for Democrats’ prospects against Pearce or Wilson — both of whom have already raised more than $1 million — the outlook, while still uncertain at this early date, is less than optimistic, says Joe Monahan, who runs a Web site on New Mexico politics.

“As the president was going down, [King and Romero] had the opportunity to hitch the Pearce/Wilson wagon to the president’s wagon, and they did not do that,” he said. “The Democrats should have been more aggressive in starting this race.”

Alabama: Sweet Home for Incumbents

In Alabama, there are a couple of interesting House primary matchups on tap even as the entire seven-Member delegation is heavily favored to win re-election in November.

In the 6th district, Phillip Jauregui (R), the one-time defense attorney for Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, is taking on six-term Rep. Spencer Bachus (R).

Moore released a statement praising the 34-year-old lawyer when he entered the race, but the ousted justice and conservative icon has not had a prominent role in the campaign. Moore gained national notoriety last year when he erected a statue honoring the Ten Commandments in the state’s judicial building and then refused to move it.

Jauregui’s only prior political experience is managing Moore’s successful 2000 campaign for chief justice, and despite his ties to conservative activists his campaign does not appear to have gained much attention.

Bachus reported more than $1.2 million in campaign donations through May 12, compared to just $24,000 for Jauregui.

No Democrats filed to run in the 6th, so the winner of the primary is guaranteed a seat in the 109th Congress.

Meanwhile, in the 7th district, Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Jr. (D) is challenging freshman Rep. Artur Davis (D).

While Turner is the son of a longtime civil rights activist, any chances of his campaign gaining traction evaporated when he was arrested in April on a harassment charge after being accused of choking a political foe during a closed-door session of the county commission last year.

Davis ousted Rep. Earl Hilliard (D) in a nasty 2002 primary battle, but at this point there is little evidence to suggest that Davis is vulnerable to defeat in the majority-black Birmingham-based district. Last year, he released two polls showing his re-election strength in the district.

Meanwhile, there are Democratic and Republican primaries in the 5th district, but Rep. Bud Cramer (D) is heavily favored to win an eighth term in November. Although there are no contested primaries in the 3rd district, the general election race between freshman Rep. Mike Rogers (R) and former state Department of Human Resources Director Bill Fuller (D) is expected to be competitive in the fall.

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