It's as though Mayor Martin Chavez and Republican challenger City Councilor Brad Winter have stepped into a circle and drawn knives. As you watch their opening moves, you see them measuring each other, jabbing, feinting and trying to set up the lunge that will do the trick.
In a city where the largest block of voters is registered Democrats, the spotlight shines on a rumble for Republican votes. Democrats right now merely watch from the shadows, to be divided later among City Councilor Eric Griego and the almost invisible Judith Espinosa and David Steele.
Chavez strode into the circle long before Winter. He decided early that the key to his reelection was Republican votes. He's amassed the largest campaign treasure chest in the city's history, sometimes by getting to Republican donors before Winter. Part of the strategy was to raise so much money it would deter most challengers.
That didn't intimidate Winter. As the only Republican in the race, he believes he can raise enough money to be competitive, even if he never catches Chavez. So far, he is way, way behind, but confident he will narrow the gap.
Winter's challenge steeled Chavez to fight harder for Republican votes. Somewhere he got his hands on the GOP's secret e-mail list, allegedly. Perhaps he found it under a magical toadstool—an explanation as plausible as anything else offered up by the Chavez campaign. Letters from Republicans like former Sheriff Bob Stover have appeared in newspapers claiming Marty is more Republican than the "liberal" Winter. Republican voters are receiving invitations to house parties for Chavez feted by low-level Republican luminaries who have jumped ship.
But Chavez left himself exposed to a counterthrust with his first public attack on Winter. Misrepresenting the truth about Winter's position on voter I.D. backfired and bloodied Chavez more than Winter.
Winter exploited Chavez' misstep and so far has avoided a similar mistake himself. Though Chavez is vulnerable on his close ties to developers, Winter understands he can't risk being labeled antigrowth by attacking too aggressively. He is also aware that Marty's makeover—losing the spectacles, becoming a notorious dog lover and mastering a soothing voice—has vastly improved his public image.
Winter's first moves have been tentative as he tests how far he can go. His words have been measured. In his latest mailing to Republican voters, Winter was careful to say, "The Mayor is a good man," and never accuse him of anything more dastardly than, "I disagree with his priorities." Winter does use the word "scandal" in discussing ABQPAC, the airport observation deck and the APD evidence room intrigues, but avoids personal attacks on the mayor.
Winter's team senses that GOP voters are willing to overlook ethical shortfalls in exchange for promoting economic growth. So Winter's letter assesses the cost of Chavez' scandals as hurting growth. Lack of trust in City Hall helped kill the road bonds in 2003, he explains. The "scandals have held us back from making the kind of progress our families, and our city, deserve," Winter argues.
Nowhere in his letter does Winter use the testosterone-charged words Republicans fire off freely in other races. Though the definitions of "sleaze" and "graft" fit Chavez' conduct in the ABQPAC scandal, Winter doesn't touch them. And charges of "corruption" have been absent from his communications.
Winter is doing what matters in his communication to Republicans: identifying himself as the Republican in the race. They can have everything Chavez offers, but with a Republican in City Hall. That tactic may eventually work, forcing Chavez to find another motivation for Republicans to cross party lines.
Chavez has unleashed an attack dog in his new campaign field director, Tony Pedroncelli, who once sought work on Eric Griego's campaign. Now he's lashing out at both Winter and Griego. Chavez is hoping Pedroncelli can pierce Winter's image as a reasonable and generally trustworthy fellow, but it so far hasn't worked. Chavez may have no choice but to personally attack Winter's character, again exposing himself to a counterthrust he might rather avoid.
During Chavez' run for governor, Republicans assembled files concerning Chavez' personal life. Though Republican incumbent Gary Johnson claimed to be running a strictly positive campaign, a very negative subplot was enacted offstage. Those files from 1998 are still around, in Republican hands, and GOP sleuths are updating their dirt.
Chavez is very worried about Winter. A Republican challenger didn't figure in his plans. But before he again slashes desperately at this adversary, he should remember the rules of the knife fight: There are none.