Ray Suarez can tell New Mexico isn't normal.
"It's not like other parts of the country, and it's not even like the places that border it," says the senior correspondent for the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." "It's a place apart in good and interesting ways."
When he spoke with the Alibi, Suarez was staying in Albuquerque while he conducted interviews and traveled throughout the state. The Brooklyn native is one of a handful of "NewsHour" correspondents who put together the program's second "Spotlight City" showcase. A few episodes will focus on New Mexico in general and Albuquerque in particular. They began airing Monday, Oct. 13, and will run through Friday, Oct. 17, on KNME.
Suarez says he and his fellow reporters are talking to "everyday folks" as well as political leaders in an attempt to give viewers a taste of the area.
New Mexico is especially compelling, he adds, because presidential races tally so close in the state. "This is a place where the finals in the national races were decided by a couple of hundred votes either way in the last two presidential cycles," Suarez says. "And here it is in 2008, and it's still pretty close again."
The "NewsHour" plans to zero in on a half-dozen cities over the next year or so. Pittsburgh had its time in front of the lens in the spring, and Las Vegas, Nev., will bask in the media glow soon.
Suarez spoke about the dynamics of the 2008 presidential race, the state's political leanings and what it's like to be a Latino visiting a majority-minority state.
What challenges do Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain face in trying to win New Mexico?
When you cover politics for a long time, there's nothing more dispiriting than talking to people who don't care. This year, people can't wait for Election Day to get here.
Well, here we are on the verge of who knows what in economic terms. In a way, this election may come a little too early for Barack Obama in the sense that if the economy were to worsen in a much clearer way, that might play to his strength.
But New Mexico and Albuquerque's unemployment rate has risen of late.
We're still on the front edge. Yes, there's been pain here. There's been increased unemployment, especially in the Albuquerque area, but it's still below the national average. Same with the foreclosure crisis. There's been a taste of it here, but it hasn't been as bad as it's been in Las Vegas or Phoenix. Those problems may be later in getting here.
Do you think third-party candidates could play a role in deciding who becomes president?
Given everything I've seen so far, it's not that likely. People perceive the stakes as being tremendously high. They're familiar with the leading candidates because this election has run for so long, and they don't feel like they have the luxury of a protest vote.
What's the most encouraging thing you've seen since you started covering this election?
People want to talk about it. They want to talk about it with me, even if I'm talking to them about something else. They're engaged and ginned up. When you cover politics for a long time, there's nothing more dispiriting than talking to people who don't care. This year, people can't wait for Election Day to get here.
New Mexico is more left-leaning than its neighbors Texas and Arizona. What's your sense of why that is?
The divisions between rich and poor are narrower here. The majority-minority profile probably contributes to it as well. But there have been very conservative politicians who have been successful here. I don't think anybody thinks that Pete Domenici is a raging liberal, for example.
What's your take on Albuquerque politics?
The city elects a lot of Democrats to local offices, yet it's always close when it comes to sending people to Washington. It's a hard place to pigeonhole.
What are some of the challenges of summing up a place like Albuquerque and a state like New Mexico?
The difficulty of doing an overview piece that's seven or eight minutes long is that any place is more detailed than you can get into. There's an exception to almost anything that you say, so you have to speak broadly and refer to things in the main. You have to get the flavor of the place to deliver it to people who aren't here. It's a great challenge.
What do you hope people get out of your report?
I hope people in the Boston suburbs and in Grand Rapids, Mich., who have never been here before will say, "Hmm, I didn't know that." And if that's what you do, as a reporter you've already earned your pay for the day. You've gotten people's attention.
What's your favorite thing about Albuquerque?
It's fun for me as a Puerto Rican guy to walk around in a place where it's not exceptional or interesting or remarkable to see Latinos everywhere doing everything. It's something that only strikes on sort of a second check of your head. You say, "Huh, look at that. Everybody's Latino, and it's no big deal."