ALBUQUERQUE —Senators from the Deep South, New England and Arizona came to town Tuesday to tout fellow Republican Heather Wilson as the candidate most capable of saving New Mexico's labs and Air Force bases from deep, unwise budget cuts.

Perhaps the most personal testimonial came from Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said Wilson will buck her own political party if that is the right decision.

Graham served with Wilson in the U.S. House of Representatives. He called her a friend who puts country ahead of Republican politics.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire also appeared with Wilson at a news conference at USS Bullhead Memorial Park. The theme was decidedly military, though a bit irreverent.

McCain said Wilson was an exceptionally qualified candidate for the Senate except for the fact that she graduated from the Air Force Academy.

"That wasn't bad for a Navy puke," Wilson joked with McCain, a graduate of Annapolis.

The visiting senators said Wilson, as a military veteran and former congresswoman, understands the best route to protect both the country and New Mexico's defense installations.

McCain said he did not know Democratic Congressman Martin Heinrich, Wilson's opponent in the Senate race, but doubted that Heinrich had the understanding of military operations that she does.

Wilson, behind in the polls, said she would make careful, scalpel-like cuts, not engage in a meat-cutter approach that she accused Heinrich of advocating when he voted for a system that could enable across-the-board cuts next year.

Heinrich had a tart response, saying he sized up the nation's economic problems the same way that McCain did.

"I agree with Senator McCain that we must come to the table and prevent devastating cuts to our military and national labs," Heinrich said. "We've clearly seen that Tea Party Republicans are willing to take our economy hostage just to score political points, but I'm not willing to do that. Last year's debt ceiling deal was necessary to avoid a global financial crisis and, like Senator McCain, I voted reluctantly to ensure that did not happen.

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Heinrich also said he had fought for the state's labs and bases when Rep. Paul Ryan, now the Republican nominee for vice president, put forth a budget proposing the same kinds of cutting that Wilson says she opposes.

"I'm committed to standing with New Mexicans and reducing the deficit using a balanced approach that includes asking millionaires to pay their fair share, while ensuring our military has the resources they need to defend our nation," Heinrich said.

Wilson, 51, and Heinrich, 40, are competing to succeed Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who is retiring.

Ayotte, describing herself as the wife of a retired fighter pilot, said Wilson stands out as the candidate with a formidable record - training at an elite service academy, followed by military service and then a decade as a member of the House of Representatives.

"Nobody can or will defend the bases any better than she will," Ayotte said.

Graham, perhaps the one who knows Wilson best, called her a serious, principled person with a clear idea of what is necessary. Wilson, he said, understands that the mission of the Senate is to "reform the Pentagon, not destroy it."

Pressed on particulars of where military cuts should be made, McCain said the blueprint is in hand. He said it is the Simpson-Bowles plan, a bipartisan proposal to reduce the national deficit.