Monday, May 07, 2007

Happy Birthday, Pete; NM Legend Turns 75 Today; Many Happy Political Returns? It's All Things Pete On Your Monday Blog 

Pete Domenici
By ordinary measures he's doing very well indeed. First and foremost, at 75, he's above ground, not a small accomplishment if you've been around long enough to see what life can dish out. He has a large and supportive family, a laundry list of friends from D.C. to Deming and a satisfying and challenging job. If this was the guy next door, they would be handing him a gold watch, a fishing pole and a Holland Cruise certificate. But Pete Domenici is not Ralph Kramden. He's...well...Pete V. Domenici--living legend. Ordinary measures do not apply.

At a time of expected placidness, the political career of New Mexico's longest ever serving United States Senator (1973-?) has never seen more turmoil. His health is sometimes frail. There's whispering that it may be time to finally come down from the pedestal. But Domenici still holds a high hand when it comes to determining the future of New Mexico politics. Barring the unforeseen, the ABQ native is not about to cash in his chips for the retirement rocker. But his path to a seventh term, assumed to be as smooth as a baby's backside, will now be strewn with some pebbles, if not boulders.

"Domenici's people are like the rest of us--waiting for a strong Democratic candidate. None has emerged. They are betting that despite the (US Attorney) scandal and the longevity question, in the end he will get no serious competition," informs a political veteran along the banks of the Potomac.

The expectation may not be unreasonable. While D.C. Democrats think Pete is vulnerable as never before, there is a disconnect with NM D's who voice little optimism.

"We need a young energetic candidate," newly installed NM Dem party chairman Brian Colón told me recently. And who is that contender? Colón and company is stumped.


There is a wild card. It belongs to Big Bill. The NM Governor has reshaped the landscape, replacing Domenici as the state's dominant political figure. But Bill, who could easily meet all the deadlines for a senate run if his Prez campaign folds in early February '08, would be more prone to run if Domenici steps down. Still, the tension over this scenario is palpable and will be with us until the Dems put a strong player on the field--not one Bill could push aside--or until February of next year.


Domenici's health and stamina has been the subject of intense interest. It appears to be a mixed bag. For example, on his Web site a late-April video clip shows an engaged and robust Domenici discussing electric cars, but in a TV public service blurb on mental health now running on NM TV, he reads his lines haltingly and in weak voice, appearing to be a very old 75. His health care is the best, but this, like the Big Bill factor, will be scrutinized as Pete starts his march toward his 76th birthday.


The startling news that the senior senator had been forced to hire a criminal defense attorney to represent him in a preliminary Senate Ethics Committee probe over the US Attorney scandal was a jaw-dropper. It signaled a problem had turned into a crisis. And it's just beginning. How Domenici maneuvers and how tough the Capitol Hill Dems will be on him will be a major factor for his 2008 political health.

Pete (circa 1970)
We need in-depth numbers. We don't have them yet. We do have the mid-April Survey USA automatic phone survey that has Pete's approval rating plummeting from 64% to 54% in the wake of the scandal in which former NM US Attorney Iglesias contends Domenici tried to pressure him into speeding up indictments of Democrats to benefit the re-election campaign of Pete protégé, ABQ GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson. This is a notable decline and one his advisers must take seriously. In this poll, the senator has dipped below 50% with Dems and Independents. The luster on Saint Pete's halo is tarnished. The effort by the GOP to demonize Iglesias has failed.

Domenici is also facing a new generation of voters raised in a youth culture. They are not as forgiving of their elders. Domenici will need political surgery in the form of paid media to get his numbers back up. If the ethics probe fizzles, the task will be easier. If it becomes a "drip-drip" of bad news, Domenici could have a hard time recapturing the magic 60% mark.


If Pete draws no significant opponent, his campaign will be able to control his appearances and mold public perception to their liking. The nightmare scenario is a strong challenger who raises millions, has credibility in the polls and starts demanding live TV debates. How would voters react to a prolonged view of a much-slower Pete than the one they are accustomed to? They are getting it in snippets now, not in contrast with a young vigorous opponent holding the same stage. How would the Domenici camp respond to the debate demand? Could they get away with ignoring it as in past years? These questions will never arise as long as the Dems remain unsuccessful in recruiting a first-tier foe.


As with the disconnect on Pete's standing among national Dems and local Dems, there is also a disconnect in the press. The national media has churned out copious copy analyzing Domenici's political fortunes in the wake of the US attorney mess. But the New Mexico press has remained largely silent, ably covering the scandal, but so far ignoring the impact it has on his re-election bid.

Domenici's constant news releases are the stuff of newsroom legend and wisecracks. His proven ability to deliver has made not only the electorate protective of him, but also the printed press. Still, a contested campaign would make this a non-factor as such a race would be largely decided on the paid and unpaid airwaves. There would be no restraining the TV newsers, where a competitive race would spark a frenzy of coverage. There also might be no restraining broadcasters' demand for TV debates if the polls showed a race in-play.


Fighting Father Time is the real battle here. The electorate, out of deep respect for his accomplishments, had been willing to gloss over any age related issues, but the US attorney scandal, the sour mood created by the no-end-in-sight Iraq war, the senator's firm support of that war and an unpopular President, has cost him that luxury. When he blows out his birthday candles today, Senator Domenici will be making more wishes than he did when he turned 74.

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