By HEATHER CLARK
ALBUQUERQUE — Republican Rep. Steve Pearce held a slim lead Tuesday over rival Heather Wilson in their race to become the GOP nominee to replace retiring Sen. Pete Domenici.
The race was too close to call late Tuesday. With 92 percent of precincts reporting statewide, Pearce led with about 51 percent of the vote to Wilson’s 49 percent, according to unofficial results.
Domenici, who will retire in January after 36 years in office, will be replaced by either Pearce, Wilson or New Mexico’s third congressman, Democrat Tom Udall, who is running unopposed in Tuesday’s primary.
The November general election faceoff is likely to be one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country, with New Mexico’s winner possibly tipping the balance of power of the Senate.
Wilson was upbeat throughout the evening. She was greeted by supporters cheering, “Viva, Heather!” as she arrived with her husband and daughter at an election night party thrown by the state Republican Party at an Albuquerque hotel.
“I’m very encouraged by what we’re seeing,” a smiling Wilson told supporters as she thanked them.
Afterward in an interview she said, “I think it’s a dead heat by what we’re hearing.”
Pearce shook hands and greeted about 200 cheering supporters at his election night party across town with his wife and grown daughter by his side. He said he feels “excited. … The polls are strong coming in.”
Late Tuesday, Pearce described the election as a “horse race.”
“We’ve been confident all night. We’ve run the race that we needed to run, explained to the voters who we are, felt good coming in. Obviously, we would like for it to be a bigger margin, but we’re satisfied with any win,” he said.
As expected, Pearce dominated across his southern New Mexico district. The former owner of an oil services company in Lea County also won 57 percent of the vote in San Juan County, which is also home to the oil industry.
Wilson had a strong showing in Los Alamos with 73 percent of the votes and in the Albuquerque-area 1st Congressional District that she represents.
The GOP Senate race ended with a surprise: an endorsement for Wilson by Domenici, who had remained neutral until a few days before the election.
For the primary, Wilson has campaigned as a moderate conservative who votes for the interests of New Mexicans rather than on a narrow ideological basis. She also stressed her ability to pull off razor-thin congressional wins in the Albuquerque-area 1st District, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans.
Appearing late Tuesday to thank her supporters, Wilson said, “We’re where we expected to be, in a dead heat. We like to keep election night exciting and we’re not disappointing.”
Pearce has focused on his right-wing Republican credentials, including opposition to abortion rights and his staunch support of the war in Iraq. His main message to constituents has been his fiscal conservatism when voting on spending bills in Congress and his mission to go after wasteful federal spending.
His position was bolstered by an anti-tax conservative group called Club for Growth.Net, which spent $620,000 on television and Internet advertising against Wilson and collected $275,000 in contributions for Pearce.
The two Republicans attacked each other in TV ads. Pearce charged Wilson with being a liberal and paired her with Udall. Wilson accused him of voting to “mothball” Cannon Air Force Base and seeking to take away Social Security benefits from widows and orphans. Both denied the charges.
At times, the candidates reminded voters they are from the same party. In a lighter moment at a televised debate in Albuquerque, Pearce and Wilson both pledged to endorse the GOP winner of Tuesday’s primary.