ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In a historic race where New Mexico will elect its first female governor, the outcome could hinge on voter discontent with a man not even on the ballot: Gov. Bill Richardson.
The governor's popularity has plunged amid corruption investigations as he nears the end of his second term, and his presence looms large in the race between Republican Susana Martinez and Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.
Martinez frequently mentions Richardson in campaign appearances, and her TV ads feature pictures of Denish alongside Richardson. Denish has attempted to distance herself from Richardson even though she's his lieutenant governor.
"We know what we have had the last eight years. We have to look at those eight years and make sure we don't have a third Bill Richardson-Diane Denish administration," Martinez told an Albuquerque crowd of more than 400 during the most recent debate.
Martinez will become the nation's first female Hispanic governor if elected, and she's giving the GOP strong hopes of victory by taking advantage of voter worries about the economy and weariness with the Richardson administration.
The New Mexico race is one of two nationwide, along with Oklahoma, where the GOP and Democratic nominees are women.
Martinez's message of change seems to resonate with New Mexico residents. Martinez led in an Albuquerque Journal poll published last weekend and her support was approaching 50 percent when factoring in undecided voters who are leaning toward her.
"Our feeling is Denish and Richardson had a chance to make a difference in education and they didn't do it," said Lonnie Montgomery, a Las Cruces Democrat who's leaning for Martinez.
Denish's campaign struggles to separate herself from Richardson represent a reversal of fortune.
In early 2009, she was poised to take over as governor because Richardson had landed an appointment in President Barack Obama's administration.
But the cabinet post fizzled and Richardson withdrew his nomination as Commerce Secretary because of a federal investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme in a highway financing deal. The investigation ended with no charges against Richardson or his top aides.
Still, the probe and a pending federal investigation into state investments have fueled Martinez's campaign.
A prosecutor from southern New Mexico, Martinez pledged to root out corruption in state government. She once was a Democrat but became a Republican before successfully running in 1996 for Dona Ana County district attorney against her former boss.
Although immigration historically hasn't been a dominant issue in statewide New Mexico campaigns, Martinez made it a centerpiece of her campaign during a five-way GOP primary.
That partly reflects her dealings with immigration issues as district attorney in Las Cruces, the state's second-largest city, which is near the border with Mexico and Texas.
Martinez has pledged to scrap a Richardson-backed law allowing illegal immigrants to get a driver's license. Denish agrees, calling the law "horribly flawed." But Martinez goes further, saying she'll revoke licenses already issued.
Denish, 61, who was Richardson's running mate in 2002 and 2006, said in a recent interview she wasn't part of Richardson's "inside circle."
"We've had what I would consider a business relationship. We're not social friends, really," said Denish, who ran a research and marketing company before becoming lieutenant governor.
In New Mexico, lieutenant governors run separately in the primary election and the winner joins the gubernatorial ticket — what Denish calls a political "marriage of convenience."
To help energize Democrats, Denish didn't ask Richardson for help. She recruited former President Bill Clinton for a campaign rally next week in Espanola, a northern New Mexico community where Hispanics account for more than 70 percent of the voting age population.
New Mexico has the largest percentage of Hispanics of any state — 46 percent — and they traditionally favor Democrats. However, the Journal poll showed Martinez doing better than average among Hispanics for a Republican.
Democrats hold a 1.6-to-1 advantage in voter registration in New Mexico, but Republicans can win when moderate-to-conservative Democrats abandon the party and independents tilt to the GOP.
Polls suggest that's happening this year. Statewide, almost two-thirds of likely voters disapproved of Richardson's job performance late last month, according to an earlier poll by the Journal, and nearly the same said the state was on the wrong track.
Democrat Jim McCole of Las Cruces, retired from the Veterans Administration, plans to vote for Denish. He was asked if he believed there was any truth to efforts by the Martinez campaign to link Denish to Richardson's corruption allegations.
"Not in real life," he said. "The governor controls everything."
Associated Press writer Tim Korte in Las Cruces, N.M., contributed to this report.
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