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NM candidates for governor face off in debate

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By Barry Massey

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Diane Denish sought Sunday to shift the focus of the race away from Gov. Bill Richardson's administration, which has been a punching bag for rival Republican Susana Martinez.

With polls showing Martinez with an advantage in the governor's race, Denish played the aggressor at a debate at Congregation Albuquerque synagogue. She described the Republican as beholden to the oil and gas industry, large corporations and out-of-state political contributors — "Texas money." One Texas couple has donated $450,000 to Martinez's campaign.

"My opponent, she wants to run against Bill Richardson. I don't know how many times she has mentioned his name. I don't see him up here. Do any of you?" said Denish, who has served as lieutenant governor since 2003 and was Richardson's running mate in 2002 and 2006.

Denish reminded the audience she was "a native New Mexican, somebody who has fought for our families, somebody who has fought for small businesses in New Mexico." What was left unsaid is that Martinez was born and grew up in El Paso, Texas. She has served as district attorney in Las Cruces since 1997.

Martinez didn't waver from her strategy of criticizing the Richardson administration and linking Denish to the Democratic governor, whose job approval ratings have plummeted as he nears the end of his second term.

"We know what we have had the last eight years. We have to look at those eight years and make sure we don't have a third Bill Richardson-Diane Denish administration. We cannot afford to have four more years of the very same failed policies," said Martinez.

The Republican assailed Richardson for padding the state's payroll with political appointees and for a 50 percent increase in state spending since he took office. Recent budget cuts, however, have reduced the growth of government to about 34 percent and Denish said the budget in Martinez's district attorney office has increased at a faster rate than state government.

The candidates also clashed on taxes, immigration and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

Denish said she favored legislation to establish domestic partnerships to provide unmarried same-sex and opposite-sex couples the legal protections and benefits offered to married couples on issues ranging from medical decision-making to adoption.

Denish said, however, she opposed same-sex marriage.

"I don't understand the distinction — a difference without a distinction," said Martinez, who opposes domestic partnerships and gay marriage.

On taxes, Martinez said New Mexico's gross receipts tax applied to far too many services and made it difficult for businesses to compete with those in other states.

Denish pointed out that personal income taxes were cut by more than $300 million during the Richardson administration. Capital gains taxes were lowered, and taxes were lifted from food and prescription drugs.

"When Susanna talks about taxes, she has a short memory," said Denish.

But Martinez fought back, citing $170 million in tax increases enacted earlier this year to help plug a budget shortfall. The gross receipts tax on goods and services was raised one-eighth of one cent, an income tax deduction was eliminated for some taxpayers, and the cigarette tax went up 75 cents a pack.

"That's not a short memory," said Martinez. "We can no longer afford to ask people to keep taking out their checkbooks to pay for irresponsible spending by this administration."

On immigration, both candidates oppose a state law that allows illegal immigrants to get a driver's license. Martinez said she would revoke licenses issued under the law signed by Richardson.

As governor, Martinez said, she will not make New Mexico "more attractive for illegal immigrants who come here to commit criminal activities against our New Mexico citizens."

Denish tried to reframe the campaign as a referendum on pocketbook issues and improving the economy. She said she would offer tax credits to small businesses to create jobs.