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updated: 11/28/2010 8:51 AM

GOP has a potential new star

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SAN DIEGO -- Poised to make history by becoming the first female governor of New Mexico and the first Latina to be a governor of any state, Susana Martinez will easily be one of the country's most consequential elected officials. But, as you learn from talking with her, she is also one of the most fascinating.

Credit the five p's: Her past, perspective, place, politics and priorities.

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Past: Born in El Paso, Texas, Martinez settled down nearby in Las Cruces, N.M. Her father was a Golden Gloves champion boxer and a deputy sheriff. Take it from the son of a retired cop, that instills a healthy respect for law and order.

Perspective: Martinez has been a district attorney for 13 years, and her husband has been a peace officer for more than three decades. At a time when nativists portray Latinos as criminals, this Latina sees the world through the lens of a prosecutor.

Place: Being from Las Cruces, she lives in the more conservative southern half of the state. Yet she's also close to the border, which gives her an up-close look at Mexico's battle with drug cartels.

"The war is right next door," she said. "There is drug trafficking going on in my county every day."

Politics: While most Mexican-Americans are loyal Democrats, she is a Republican who bravely ran for governor at a time when many Latinos are angry with the GOP for the anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of its candidates.

Priorities: Besides cutting spending and battling the corruption for which New Mexico is famous, Martinez has also vowed to lead the charge to roll back a state policy of providing driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. It's an unusual stand for a Mexican-American officeholder, and a controversial one.

For Martinez, it's a cut-and-dried issue of public safety. She is concerned that the licenses being given to illegal immigrants are identical to those given to U.S. citizens. In the post-9/11 world, that's living dangerously.

Still, Martinez is no right-wing ideologue. She recently came out against Arizona's immigration law, which all but requires local and state police to racially profile Latinos. As a prosecutor, Martinez is concerned that crimes might go unreported or witnesses might go underground if they fear local police officers.

"When there is a crime committed against someone who is in the country illegally," she said, "we have to respond the same way we would if the victim were a U.S. citizen."

Martinez is already stirring anxiety among Democrats. The fact that she appeals to different groups of voters earning 38 percent of the Latino vote in the governor's race, according to exit polls makes her a threat to the opposition. Just like one-time federal appellate court nominee Miguel Estrada and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, she'll be a target for the left because hers is an inspirational success story that might convince Latino voters to take a fresh look at the GOP.

Most Mexican-Americans won't be sold. But, if Republicans can clean up their language on immigration, Mexican nationals who have become naturalized citizens might warm up to them. These voters are blank slates politically, and so they're not loyal to any political party. Besides, they come from a country where one might see a dozen choices on a ballot. They must think it odd that in this country, most Latinos cling to one party. Lastly, they're also used to seeing Latinos in positions of power and they must find it comforting that the incoming governor of New Mexico looks like them. One Martinez aide told me that on the campaign trail, it was common to see immigrant hotel maids weep at the sight of the candidate. Such imagery is golden, especially for a Republican.

Martinez has been on her own road of self-discovery. It's ironic that one of the GOP's brightest stars says she didn't even know she was a Republican until she ran for district attorney of Dona Ana County in 1996. She and her husband were visiting a Republican friend who asked them a series of questions to gauge their values. She had always assumed she was a Democrat. But her support for lower taxes, smaller government, gun rights, welfare reform, restrictions on abortion and other conservative causes told her that she belonged elsewhere.

"When we left," she recalled, "we looked at each other and said, 'Wow, we're Republicans. Now what?'"

Probably plenty. The GOP should be grateful for that epiphany. The election is over. The Susana Martinez story is just beginning.

(c) 2010, The Washington Post Writers Group

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