Inside the Capitol

Thursday, July 26, 2007

8-1 It's Pete For a 7th Term


Syndicated Columnist


      SANTA FE -- Sen. Pete Domenici has been busy around New Mexico lately. That's not unusual for a U.S. senator whose six-year term is about to expire.

      But there has been much talk about Pete calling it quits. He's 75 now and has some health problems. It's not the first time for health problems and he's overcome them before.

      But Pete does have some political problems here at home. He has deftly avoided such problems ever since going to the Senate in 1973. But the Iraq War is beginning to weigh on many of his political supporters.

   And then he didn't come out looking good in the aftermath of the firing of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. He faces a possible ethics probe on that matter.

   The result is a reported drop to 51 percent in a recent Survey USA poll. That is unheard of for Pete. He brushes it off, but he also seems to be doing something about it.

   Besides making more appearances around the state, he has called on President George Bush to change his war strategy. He hasn't cast any votes against him yet, but Pete's put the president on notice.

   He's not being too rough on the unpopular president yet, however. He's asked Bush to help him raise big money at an August 27 Albuquerque fundraiser. Next year Pete can keep Bush under wraps.

   If the tide is turning against Domenici, he's fortunate that no big Democrats have declared against him. Three second-tier candidates have announced their challenge.

   Chief among them is Santa Fe developer Don Wiviott, who primed his campaign war chest with $400,000 of personal money and says he's willing to go a million. The two others in the race also are Santa Feans, Jim Hannan and Leland Lehrman.

   There's always an outside chance that Gov. Bill Richardson will decide to forget the presidential race and take aim at the Senate if Domenici drops out or appears sufficiently weakened. He would have to make a decision before the first primary in order to get on the New Mexico ballot.

   But if he were to have an agreeable person be a placeholder for him, Richardson would have until this time next year, when the general election ballot is being finalized. You can be sure Wiviott will be watched closely for any signs of chumminess with Richardson.

   There is word that Domenici may even have a primary opponent. That kind of talk is likely to start the earth rumbling. Pete has not had a primary opponent since the seven he had when he first ran in 1972.

   A wealthy newcomer to the state, Spiro Vassilopoulos, has shown a flurry of activity in Republican politics of late. He's starting with a strike against him because of that first name. Republicans thought they had seen their last Spiro 30 years ago.

   Blogger Joe Monahan says Spiro V. made his money in oil and gas interests in the Middle East. He spent 12 years in Iran and is now a naturalized American. He's considering the possibility of taking on Pete V. over his switch in Iraq policy.

   If Vassilopoulos were to decide on a primary election challenge to Domenici, he would have to get past the state pre-primary nominating convention, which requires a candidate receive at least 20 percent of delegate votes. That's not likely and the avenue of getting additional signatures to qualify was quietly barricaded by the 2007 Legislature.

   So how likely is Pete to run? My guess is very likely. When I first got into this business 20 years ago, Pete, a heavy smoker, had some serious lung problems. The word was that he would have to forego a run for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.

   One of my first columns insisted that was not going to happen. I'd known Pete since college days and knew he was a determined fighter. I received thank yous from his staff for coming to the boss' defense.

   I also countered arguments that he wouldn't seek a fifth and sixth term. I wasn't thanked on those occasions. My conclusion: the closest Pete ever came to having to leave the Senate was three terms ago.

   I think he's in better shape now than he was then.

WED, 8-01-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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