Nip and Tucker in New Mexico

Posted September 20, 2004 at 6:09pm

All he has to do is collect one vote on Election Day, and Gregory Tucker, the Republican nominee in New Mexico’s 3rd district, will have surpassed the GOP performance there in 2002.

[IMGCAP(1)]Not that the San Juan County district attorney doesn’t dream of knocking off three-term Rep. Tom Udall (D) in November.

But he and other Republicans in the Land of Enchantment know how difficult the undertaking is going to be.

The 49,000-square-mile district favored Al Gore over George W. Bush by 9 points in the 2000 presidential election and is considerably more Democratic on paper. It has had a Democratic Representative for all but 18 months of the 22 years it has been in existence. And in 2002, the Republicans gave Udall a free pass.

Not this time.

Tucker, at 31, the youngest DA in New Mexico, surprised even fellow Republicans by jumping into the race.

Now the executive director of the New Mexico Republican Party believes that Tucker could pull the starkest of upsets.

“We have a saying in New Mexico: There never was a horse who couldn’t be rode or a cowboy who couldn’t be throw’d,” said Greg Graves, the state GOP official.

Of course, many political observers figure Tucker is simply trying to boost his name recognition and collect chits for a future run for some other office. He has been DA in San Juan County in the far northwestern corner of the state for four years.

“He’s 31 — he really doesn’t have much to lose,” said Joe Monahan, an Albuquerque-based political consultant and PR man who runs a popular Web site on New Mexico politics. “He’ll pick up some IOUs for the future.”

Still, Tucker believes the district is not as out of reach to Republicans as the conventional wisdom suggests.

Although most people associate the 3rd district with its most colorful towns, like Santa Fe and Taos, it is a diverse place, he said, marked by the patriotism of its residents, and even most Democrats are conservative. As such, Graves predicted that Udall’s votes against the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act could hurt him.

As if to play up his own patriotism, Tucker’s campaign Web site is dominated by photos of a rally Bush held in Farmington in late August.

And in an area — and state — where drunk driving continues to be one of the most intractable problems, Tucker gained headlines earlier this year when he proposed a state law that would prevent people with driving-while-intoxicated convictions on their record from buying alcohol. Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson praised the idea and said he would consider introducing such a measure.

“I’m going to work on that bill next year regardless of what I’m doing for a living,” Tucker said.

Ironically, Udall used the drunk driving issue to make his political mark during his eight years as state attorney general, pushing for tougher penalties and working to close drive-up windows at New Mexico liquor stores.

The Udall-Tucker battle, Graves noted, is “a race between a gringo lawyer from Arizona and Washington, D.C. [Udall], and a gringo lawyer from Farmington.”

Still, Graves concedes that Tucker “may not be able to go over the mountain this time — it’s a really big hump.”

Tucker’s challenge was borne out in a recent poll, which showed Udall enjoying a 63 percent to 21 percent lead. And Udall wasn’t just the beneficiary of the district’s Democratic tilt: Fully 29 percent of Republicans queried said they would vote for the incumbent (54 percent preferred Tucker and the rest were undecided).

There is certainly a mountain of difference between the incumbent and challenger financially.

On June 30, Udall had $606,000 in his campaign treasury; Tucker had $34,000, a figure that was augmented by a $10,000 loan.

Tucker, who is giving up the DA’s job to run for Congress, said he is prepared for whatever verdict the voters deliver.

“If we aren’t successful,” he said, “we’ll call it Round One and move on from there.”

“Long term for him,” Graves said, “the sky’s the limit.”