Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Games Pete Plays: Decision To Stay Neutral In Senate Race Reversed; Domenici Backs Wilson, But Questions Raised On Who Is Running The Show 

Heather & Pete by Bralley
Retiring GOP US Senator Pete Domenici Friday night ended up backing Heather Wilson's bid for the GOP nod for the US Senate after all, but it was done in a sloppy and bizarre fashion that left observers wondering if it was worth the effort and whether it would end up benefiting Wilson in any significant way as she tries to overcome rival Steve Pearce in Tuesday's election.

The story started to move at 5:30 p.m. when KRQE-TV reported that Domenici, at an appearance in Socorro, said he hoped Heather would win the Friday night TV debate being broadcast on several stations. Steve Bell, Domenici's powerful and longtime chief of staff took it upon himself to interpret that statement to the Associated Press:

"What he said in Socorro today was an endorsement." Bell said. However, in the first AP report, Bell is quoted as saying, "I think" the Socorro statement was an endorsement, indicating he had not spoken with Domenici on just what he meant. But that was good enough for Heather who told the state during the 7 p.m. TV debate that Domenici, who got her started in politics 10 years ago, was endorsing her candidacy, reversing an earlier statement that he would stay out of the race.

"His office has confirmed that those comments should be considered an endorsement of my candidacy," Wilson told the TV audience. "I will say this directly to him: I am deeply honored to have received your endorsement for my candidacy for Senate."

Was Domenici railroaded into the endorsement by an aggressive staff chief looking to aide Wilson, or was Pete fully aware of what was going on and playing coy?

It wasn't until after the debate that Domenici's office came with a direct quote confirming Domenici's backing. They also put him on the 10 p.m KOB-TV news via telephone to announce his support.

Pete & Pearce
The sloppy unfolding of events just three days before the primary had a Pearce operative on deep background calling it all "distasteful."

"It looks like they are strapping Pete to the deck chairs of the Titanic,"said the operative. "It seems the Senator has lost control to his staff. It is a hell of a note to go out on."

Domenici recently said he would not endorse a candidate in the Senate race. He did leave himself some wiggle room, saying if one of the candidates did something that was way out of line, he might get involved. As explained by the AP Friday night: "Domenici has been troubled recently over involvement in the Senate race by a conservative anti-tax group, the Club for Growth, which has spent $394,000 on television advertising attacking Wilson. "Senator Domenici has just had enough," Bell said.

Pearce is leading in campaign polls. The ABQ Journal poll hits Sunday and is expected to confirm Pearce's lead, but now Wilson operatives can be expected to try to naysay that survey by saying it was taken before Domenici's endorsement.

The eleventh hour support of Domenici might help Wilson some in the ABQ area, but most observers said it comes too late to have any significant impact. For them, the evolution of events leading to the endorsement will be remembered much longer. How will it impact Domenic's legacy if Wilson ends up losing? It's known that several prominent members of Pete's family had worked to keep him from getting involved in the race, but Wilson and Bell apparently seized the opportunity created when Pete blurted out his comment about hoping she would win the debate.

Domenici, 76, suffers from an incurable brain disease. Because the endorsement was not given in a firm, independent and very public manner by the Senator himself, but first came through his chief of staff, questions will linger as to whether Domenici was manipulated into making the last minute endorsement. It's a sloppy and unsettling ending to a drama featuring New Mexico's most venerable politician.


Text of Sen. Pete Domenici's statement Friday supporting Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico's Republican Senate primary:

Heretofore I have been reserved in commenting on the Republican primary race for the U.S. Senate. However, I have become increasingly concerned that, even after I asked that the Club for Growth not be allowed to try to influence this election, they put at least $200,000 in television advertising in this race to try to do just that. I continue to believe that such outside influences should not be used to try to influence the voters of New Mexico.

As I said today in Socorro when asked about tonight's debate, Heather Wilson is the brightest member of Congress I know and I hope she wins. I do want to tell all New Mexicans that today I cast my vote for Heather Wilson in the Senate race. Having brought her into politics, I have the utmost confidence in her abilities to serve New Mexicans and Americans.

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