Alamogordo, New Mexico (CNN) – When CNN interviewed Susana Martinez, New Mexico's Republican candidate for Governor, we got a surprise. Our cameraman John Torigoe was trying to clip the microphone pack to the candidate's belt when she pulled away and said "Be careful, that's a gun back there." Martinez tells CNN she has a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
She was packing heat when she addressed a gathering in Alamogordo, New Mexico on Monday. She warned them not to get too confident because "as Republicans we're outnumbered."
The polls look good she said but "We have to pretend we are ten points down. This is still a very Democratic state. We have to earn the votes of Democrats, independents and Tea Party Patriots."
If elected, Martinez will be the first Latina governor in the United States. She is a pro-death penalty, anti-abortion rights Republican endorsed by Sarah Palin, and polls show her leading her challenger, State Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish.
"She's given the Republican Governors association the ability to compete in what was thought of as a safe Democratic state," says Nick Ayers, Executive Director of the Republican Governors Association. If elected he believes Martinez will prevent President Obama from winning the state in 2012, and "broaden" the Republican Party's appeal to Latinos - a key constituency both parties are fighting to win over.
Martinez acknowledges the party has some work to do in the Latino community, advising Republicans to "talk about immigration in a very common sense way. And we have to have other Latinos running for office."
She doesn't shy away from her own tough-on-illegal immigration positions. As governor she says she'd try to revoke a state law that gave drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants.
The campaign has been marked by nasty ads. Martinez accused her opponent of using "stimulus funds to fly (a) $5 million jet" and "giving sanctuary to criminal illegals" including a child molester. Denish accuses Martinez of letting sex offenders go free and even closes one TV spot by saying Martinez is "not a pretty picture."
In general Denish has tried to paint the Republican as corrupt, beholden to big business, and too conservative for a state that twice elected Bill Richardson governor and went for Obama in 2008.
A new Denish campaign memo says Martinez promotes an agenda that will "protect loopholes for powerful corporations and will force her to cut critical services like education, Medicaid or public safety."
Emily's List, an organization devoted to electing Democratic women who favor reproductive rights, compares Martinez to Senate candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware saying she "caters to extreme right-wing Tea Party voters".
Martinez brushes it off saying, "I don't have any response to make to anyone who would make such a comparison as that. I am my own person," and adds "Because I am pro-life I don't make any bones, no apologies for that whatsoever."
Though Sarah Palin's endorsement helped Martinez lock up the nomination the candidate now seems to be seeking distance telling CNN, "You know Sarah Palin's endorsement was in the primary. We were pleased to have it. We were pleased to have everyone else's endorsement." Asked if she would support Palin for President she punts saying "you know I am not focused on Sarah Palin at this point."
But she doesn't hesitate to discuss the role that women in politics can play insisting, "We are just as prepared as any male to take on the challenges of running our state, our communities, our city and the country. We are just as bright and we can handle the job."
In a year in which gaffe prone female candidates are getting a lot of press attention, the women running to be New Mexico's next governor are notable. Even critics don't accuse them of lacking credibility.