Zeroing in on Pearce

Posted April 20, 2004 at 6:09pm

With little more than a month left before the June 1 primary, former state Rep. Gary King (D) is touting an internal poll that shows him far ahead of former political aide Jeff Steinborn (D) in the battle to take on freshman Rep. Steve Pearce (R) in the Land of Enchantment’s 2nd Congressional district.

The poll, conducted in early April by Alan Secrest, showed King, the son of former three-term Gov. Bruce King (D), besting Steinborn in a primary matchup 54 percent to 12 percent. According to the same poll, King, who trailed Pearce by 19 points in a hypothetical general election, had a 65 percent name identification among likely Democratic primary voters compared to Steinborn’s 26 percent, even though King only moved to the southern New Mexico district earlier this year to launch a House bid.

But despite King’s status as the primary frontrunner — and as the early favorite of national Democrats — major New Mexico political players have so far chosen to remain above the fray. The two Democrats in New Mexico’s Congressional delegation, Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Tom Udall, are staying neutral.

So is Gov. Bill Richardson (D) — who did endorse state Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero (D) in his three-way 1st district primary race — despite King’s earlier assertions that the governor would support him in the primary.

Steinborn’s better-than-expected finish at the New Mexico preprimary nominating convention in March — where he pulled 42 percent of delegates’ votes compared to King’s 58 percent — as well as his early, aggressive campaigning throughout the district may in part be responsible for the official reticence to back King.

“That [King] didn’t do better than he did is a sign that the establishment is fairly open,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of the New Mexico marketing research and public opinion firm Research and Polling Inc. and a longtime pollster for the Albuquerque Journal. However, he added: “The King name’s been in New Mexico politics for four decades with relatively few controversies, therefore you have to give the edge to Gary for sure.”

King has already received the endorsements of the New Mexico Federation of Teachers and the United Food and Commercial Workers unions.

At least for the moment, King appears to be conserving his energy for the general election. He has yet to hit the hustings and only last Sunday held his first campaign-sponsored meet and greet in Las Cruces, the biggest city in the district — where Steinborn’s father was once mayor.

“Primarily during the days I’ve been making telephone calls for fundraising or organizational purposes,” said King, who recently canceled a trip to Italy with his wife given its proximity to the date when the first votes will be cast.

Under state election law, absentee and early voting begins 28 days before the election.

Despite the potential for a surprisingly close primary, there are signs that the Steinborn campaign may have hit a rough stretch. Just last week, Steinborn dismissed his campaign manager, Alex Behrend. And he decided against retaining one of his financial consultants, Mia Pheifer, once the “terms of the agreement” were met.

“We had a duplication of efforts,” explained Steinborn of Behrend’s dismissal, adding that the decision was based on a need to maximize resources. “We’ve got several people doing the job … there’s no one with the big title.”

But one New Mexico Democratic operative said of Steinborn that there’s “a sense he wasn’t able to take off.” The operative said that Steinborn needed to have launched an ambitious media campaign much earlier in the year in order to boost his name ID.

“Gary King has to do very little to exert himself to win during the primary because of his name ID … [voters] will pick the King name because it’s the one they recognize,” the Democrat said.

The expected low primary turnout this year — there are no major statewide races or hotly contested legislative races in the district to drive voters to the polls — could also hurt Steinborn, who must do exceptionally well in his hometown of Las Cruces in order to offset King’s advantage, added Sanderoff.

However, Steinborn rejected any suggestions that his campaign is faltering, pointing to a slate of endorsements by Democratic mayors as well as his competitive war chest. Through March 31, Steinborn showed about $84,000 on hand, with King at $102,000. And Steinborn, whose own campaign has been loaned $30,000, is quick to point out that King’s take has been vastly enriched by $110,000 in personal loans.

“We’ve raised 40 percent more money than Gary from individual contributions,” said Steinborn, a former aide to both Bingaman and Richardson.

Although King’s poll numbers and New Mexico conventional wisdom has the son of the former governor handily beating Steinborn, some observers, such as political consultant Joe Monahan — a friend of King’s who runs a popular Web site on New Mexico politics — said he still thinks the race remains competitive.

“I think Steinborn has some hidden support that can show up on election day because of his father’s position in the community and his lifelong ties to the district, and also because he has more than $80,000 in the bank,” Monahan said.

But when it comes to specifics as to how he plans to increase his name ID in the sprawling, multimedia market district in the remaining few weeks before the election, the 34-year-old Steinborn declined to go into detail.

“We are going to be aggressively working to let voters learn more about who I am,” he said. He would not address whether he planned to or had already conducted any polls, saying only, “We are doing all kinds of research that normally happens on a Congressional campaign.”

As for the general election, the New Mexico Democratic operative conceded the November battle in the conservative leaning district would be “difficult” for Democrats, a sentiment echoed by several political observers.

Pearce, after all, posted roughly $722,000 in cash on hand. A recent fundraiser with Vice President Cheney brought in more than $200,000.

Even King’s own poll showed him losing 52 percent to 33 percent in an initial head-to-head matchup with Pearce (though King led after he and Pearce were described to voters at length).

“Whoever the nominee is is not going to change the fact that we are going to work harder than they are,” said Pearce spokeswoman Gail Gitcho.