Monday, June 26, 2006

The Dendahl Backlash: Source Says New Mexico Governor Prepares To Field Foe Against Senator Domenici in 08'; Stakes Rise For State Political Giants 

Big Bill
The stakes just got higher. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, reportedly incensed over GOP Senator Pete Domenici's involvement in recruiting firebrand and former NM GOP Chair John Dendahl as the party's gubernatorial nominee, is warning that he is preparing to field an 08' candidate to take on Domenici, New Mexico's longest-ever serving U.S. senator.

As is customary in these matters, the chief executive did not directly address the issue, but choreographed his intent to a highly-placed operative who quotes the Governor directly as saying, "I've never played around in Pete's races, but now that he has gotten involved in mine, I am ready to field a candidate against him."

Richardson will shy away from any direct hit on Pete but, at the least, he seems determined to send a message, relayed by a reliable source, directly to the senator's camp.


The Domenici involvement in the Dendahl bid, along with that of the senator's highly-skilled and longtime chief political operative Steve Bell, has Richardson ready to do what he believes Pete has done; break the tenuous public truce the two political giants have had and back a contender against the senator who recently announced he will be seeking a seventh, six year term in 2008.

The extent of the Domenici-Bell role in birthing the Dendahl candidacy following the withdrawal of J.R. Damron has been the subject of intense speculation, beginning on this blog when top sources in NM and Washington, D.C. were quoted as saying the Dendahl move was spearheaded by Bell with Domenici's consent. Then Dendahl himself volunteered news to the Santa Fe New Mexican that confirmed those sources' reports, saying that Bell had indeed played a prominent role and that former NM GOP National Committeeman Mickey Barnett, a longtime Dendahl backer who has been nominated by Domenici for a position on the board of U.S. postal governors, was also a key player.

After those reports, operative Bell phoned the ABQ Journal to assert that Domenici's role was just "peripheral." But Richardson, according to his operative, isn't buying; that he understands it is natural for the state's senior GOP senator to be consulted in party affairs, but not to actually foster a candidacy devised with the intent of taking him out of the Prez battle which is what he believes has occurred.

"He does believe that Damron was pushed out because they (Domenici-Bell) were unhappy that he was not attacking him enough. He sees the Dendahl bid as personal and damaging to his relationship with Domenici." The operative informed.

Richardson sympathizers say both sides knew going in that Big Bill was heavily favored for re-election, and that the Dendahl candidacy appears to to be an act of spite. Domenici supporters, maintaining that Domenici-Bell did not directly orchestrate the Dendahl bid, insist the Guv is being naive if he did not expect a rigorous re-elect.

Sen. Domenici
If Domenici-Bell did more than just encourage the Dendahl bid against Richardson it would be unusual, but not unprecedented. In 1984, when Big Bill was seeking his second term as a congressman from northern New Mexico, I served as press secretary to his GOP challenger, former Domenici chief of staff Lou Gallegos, who Domenici recruited to run against Richardson. Bell, as he is today, was then Pete's chief of staff and played a prominent role in the Gallegos effort, but Richardson won big in the heavily Democratic area. (I still do PR work, but have no political clients and have had none for several years.)

But now the stakes are higher, as big as they get, in fact, as Richardson, now 58, weighs an 08' bid for the Dem Prez or Veep nomination. If Guv longshot Dendahl succeeds in "muddying him up" it could derail those political plans and any others he may have.

It was uncertain until this year whether the senator, who will be 76 in 2008, would seek to extend his remarkable political run, but his popularity and performance remain solid. However, a serious challenge is not something he probably contemplated when deciding to go for another trip back to Capitol Hill. Richardson's push-back, if it develops, could turn a sleeper race into a nightmare.

The Governor could be bluffing, of course, but he has repeatedly backed candidates for an array of New Mexico offices since assuming power in 2003. He also has the proven ability to raise millions of dollars. That track record makes any threat, real or perceived, a significant development in New Mexican political affairs that takes the matter beyond "insider baseball" and is fraught with significant political and policy implications for the state.

Zamora & Guv
Our highly-placed source did not query the irritated Governor on just who he would field against Domenici who years ago was dubbed "Saint Pete" by the ABQ Tribune's Kate Nelson for his penchant for winning landslide election victories and for the respect he commands in the state and nation. But the news started the speculative juices flowing with Santa Fe attorney and recent Dem attorney general candidate Geno Zamora being mentioned as a natural, if not a probable candidate.

The young and talented Zamora was handily defeated by veteran Gary King, but he walked away relatively unscathed. His candidacy was widely seen as backed by the Governor, who he served as chief legal counsel. He also matches the profile of the last serious Democratic opponent Domenici faced, then-former attorney general and later New Mexico Governor Toney Anaya who held Pete to 53% of the vote in 1978.


Dendahl conducted his first live, in-depth TV interview with KRQE-TV's Erika Ruiz on Friday. You can see it here...Throughout his political career Dendahl has proven himself a lightning rod for controversy. When his candidacy was approved by the GOP State Central Committee everyone knew the nature of the game had changed, but before this is over forces that have nothing to do with Dendahl and everything to do with how New Mexico is served both locally and nationally could be unleashed.

If there is brinkmanship going on here, we are on the brink and waiting for someone to blink. If not, the Dendahl candidacy could be just the warm-up act for a Western shoot-out featuring the two preeminent power players of their times.

A double sign off for this biggie: "Don't say we didn't tell you," and, "Stay tuned."


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