By Tim Korte: The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE — The White House billed it as a backyard visit in Albuquerque’s south valley, a chance for a disabled Marine Corps veteran, his family and their neighbors to pull up a lawn chair and share concerns with President Barack Obama.
But it sure sounded like a campaign stop to prop up New Mexico Democrats.
Obama addressed about 40 people at the stucco-sided home of Andy and Etta Cavalier, speaking on the importance of education in ensuring America’s economic future before taking questions from the group on matters ranging from immigration reform and veterans issues to why he is a Christian.
In the audience were Gov. Bill Richardson, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who suggested to Obama that he visit the semi-rural south valley, where a breeze smelled of alfalfa from an adjacent pasture and two horses grazed while the president spoke.
“When you get in the airport and see downtown, that’s all great, but I wanted him to see a piece of New Mexico that’s not going to look like the places he sees in Ohio and Virginia,” Heinrich said afterward. “We’re very proud of that. It’s not like Anywhere, USA.”
Heinrich is a first-term Democrat seeking re-election this fall, locked in a tight race to defend his Albuquerque-area seat against Republican Jon Barela.
Unlike some Democrats who have avoided appearing in public with Obama on their home turf, Heinrich said he was proud to have the president visit his district.
“Absolutely, I am. No question,” Heinrich said.
During his remarks, Obama kept hitting a central theme — Republicans are trying to thwart his administration’s efforts at reform and voters who propelled him win the presidency two years ago should consider helping Democrats finish the job.
“When you’re making choices for governor, your choices for Senate and Congress, these choices mean something,” Obama said.
If there was any remaining suspicion that Democrats hoped to build on Obama’s trip, it was erased after the event when the presidential motorcade made an unannounced visit to the Barelas Coffee House, a popular Mexican food restaurant, and Denish worked the lunchtime crowd with Obama.
Denish trailed Republican Susana Martinez in a recent Albuquerque Journal poll in the New Mexico governor’s race, but Obama’s visit could help Denish if it can energize Democrats.
Obama was enormously popular in New Mexico two years ago during his election victory, carrying the state with a decisive 57 percent of votes compared with 43 percent for Republican John McCain.
Obama’s keys to victory in the state — strong support from Hispanics and his ability to carry the Albuquerque area. Given those factors, it’s not surprising Heinrich hoped to stage the visit in the mostly Hispanic south valley.
The event also played into themes that Heinrich, a former Albuquerque city councilor, has embraced during his first two years in Congress — helping students, small businesses and veterans.
Cavalier, who rose to staff sergeant during his 13-year career in the Marines, said he has endured 25 surgeries for problems with his feet, ankles, knees and sinuses, as well as receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Heinrich said the Democratic controlled Congress deserves credit for changing Veterans Administration appropriations from a one-year to a two-year cycle. It helped insulate the agency from political maneuvering as funding bills approached completion, he said, helping veterans like Cavalier.
“He’s a great example of somebody who should not have to be fighting for the treatment he has earned,” Heinrich said.