Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

6-30 What Did Pete Have to do with It?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- After months of rigor mortis in the Republican gubernatorial campaign, it is refreshing to see it suddenly jump back to life.
The past several days of campaign intrigue are making up for many months of silence. As stories change every day about what led to the departure of Santa Fe Dr. J.R. Damron and the sudden emergence of Santa Fe politico John Dendahl as the GOP gubernatorial candidate, we'll try to keep you up with the plot twists.
Some might get tired of hearing about it, but a shift of major party gubernatorial candidates five months before a general election is unprecedented in New Mexico history.
In 1980, U.S. Rep. Harold Runnels, of Lovington, died after the primary election and was replaced by the Democratic state central committee. The selection of David King caused enough voter consternation that write-in-candidate Joe Skeen won the general election.
But this time, no one died, though some would argue that the campaign did. How did it come to pass that Dr. Damron stepped aside so quickly and quietly?
The official version is that old friend John Dendahl dropped by the Damron house one morning and offered to take over. Party leaders were consulted that afternoon and by evening, Dr. and Mrs. Damron had accepted.
But precedent-shattering decisions like that don't happen in an eight-hour time period, except in Dan Brown novels.
Supposedly the campaign was in full swing and everyone was happy the morning of Dendahl's visit. But two weeks earlier, a headline in the Albuquerque Journal revealed that the state GOP and the good doctor weren't seeing eye-to-eye about the pace of the campaign.
Consequently, Damron agreed to take leave from his medical practice and devote full time to the campaign, which, he said, made the party very pleased.
But the party still had concerns. And it had been having them almost since the beginning last October, when Damron picked up his nominating petitions.
Since the Santa Fe radiologist was the only one to pick up petitions, party leaders went easy on him, knowing the difficulty of finding anyone who wanted to go after an energetic, well-financed, incumbent governor. A lieutenant governor running mate for Damron could not be found until three days before the filing deadline in February.
At the March preprimary nominating convention, when candidate names were officially put on the ballot, concerns were expressed among some delegates that not much was happening in Damron's campaign.
In April, Damron's campaign manager quit. We now know that he told the candidate at the time that he needed to decide whether his heart really was in the race. He also shared that information with party leaders.
And that's when a search for solutions began to take shape. The official word is that Sen. Pete Domenici was contacted, along with other party leaders, the day of Dendahl's visit to Damron. And Pete said it sounded OK to him. Domenici told the press he was very, very shocked and surprised.
But blogger Joe Monahan says Pete's fingerprints were all over this one. He wanted Richardson roughed up during his reelection campaign. Domenici and Richardson have worked together on many projects over the years, but since becoming governor, Richardson has dominated the scene.
Pete doesn't like not being top guy for New Mexico and besides Richardson just might have his eye on Domenici's Senate seat in 2008, if the presidential politics don't work out.
So, according to Monahan, Domenici and others began several weeks ago considering replacements for Damron. And Dendahl quickly became the perfect candidate to soften up Richardson.
Domenici and Dendahl aren't particularly close, but in this instance, Pete really likes him. Domenici says Dendahl is like a breath of fresh air´┐Żlike a new candidate.
That's pretty good for a guy who came in third in the Republican gubernatorial primary 12 years ago.
This is Dendahl's big chance to shine.
FRI, 6-30-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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