Obama holds narrow lead, with N.M. caucus still undetermined

Staff and wire reports

ALBUQUERQUE — Barack Obama held the narrowest of leads Tuesday over rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Mexico’s Democratic caucus.

With 69 of 184 precincts reporting, Obama had 48.2 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 47.9 percent, according to preliminary returns.

New Mexico’s tight contest was a slice of a coast-to-coast Super Tuesday battle in which the two Democrats were vying to become their party’s nominee.

In New Mexico, voters met with long lines after a greater-than-expected turnout surprised party officials. The party opened 184 caucus sites around the state beginning at noon, but some complained that that wasn’t enough; when the polls closed at 7 p.m., some voters were still waiting to cast a ballot.

“The turnout’s off the charts,” said Democratic Party Chairman Brian Colon at party headquarters in Albuquerque. “We’re just thrilled and overwhelmed with the turnout.”

Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, chairwoman of Clinton’s campaign in New Mexico, said, “It’s a very tight race. It looks like it’s going to be a long night.”

Trevor Fitzgibbon, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said high turnout would favor Obama.

“We’re very encouraged about the turnout,” he said before the early results were announced.

“The voters in New Mexico have the power to make history today for Barack Obama, because he’s the one who can make change happen.” The Obama campaign declined to comment immediately on the early results.

The high turnout led to long lines in which voters waited for up to two hours to cast their ballots and ballot shortages.

Gov. Bill Richardson credited the last-minute blitz of candidate visits for the big turnout, which he said indicated an “enormous thirst for change.”

“The turnout today, nationally and in New Mexico, in my judgment shows that Democrats are going to have a good day in November, when we elect the president,” Richardson said at a news conference Tuesday night.

Richardson also predicted a very close race in New Mexico between Clinton and Obama, “within one or two percent either way.”

In polling places in Bernalillo and on Albuquerque’s west side, hundreds of people waited for 45 minutes to two hours to cast their votes.

Eexit polls showed that Obama was the clear favorite of liberal Democrats; Clinton led slightly among self-described moderates, who often are swing voters in general elections in New Mexico.

— CNJ staff writer Liliana Castillo contributed to this report