ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ It looked like Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson would coast toward re-election until Saturday when his little-known Republican opponent dropped out of the race and the GOP named a more aggressive candidate.

J.R. Damron, who had no ballot opposition in this month's primary election, never got much traction in his campaign and was so far behind Richardson in fundraising that some GOP insiders questioned whether he could compete against the popular incumbent.

The Santa Fe radiologist who has never held elected office addressed delegates at the Republican State Central Committee meeting and left without talking with reporters.

About 100 party members from across the state then gave a unanimous voice vote to support former state GOP chairman John Dendahl to take Damron's place.

While Dendahl, 67, has upset Democrats and even some in his own party with his aggressive tactics in campaigns, his outspoken sense of style may be what Republicans need to challenge Richardson who is considered to be a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2008.

Dendahl, a cross-country skier in the 1960 Winter Olympics, rejected suggestions he was merely filling out the GOP ticket, expressing confidence he'll be able to raise money quickly and wage a credible campaign.

``I don't take on any battles in athletics or in anything else without intending to win,'' Dendahl said. ``I acknowledge Bill Richardson is a very formidable opponent. He will have an enormous amount of money.''

It will take a lot of effort to catch up to the $5.7 million cash balance Richardson reported at the end of May. Damron had reported $43,827 in reserves.

Richardson's campaign chairman, Dave Contarino, said Dendahl's candidacy makes no difference to Richardson.

``It seems almost like that's why (Dendahl's) in the race _ to throw as much mud as possible at Richardson because he assumes, just as everyone else, that there's this presidential race in the future,'' Contarino said.

In a statement released later Saturday, Damron said the new candidate ``needs to engage Richardson in a decisive, bull-doggish manner to bring out all of his many deficient, negative and duplicitous characteristics, and highlight Richardson's self-serving, abusive treatment of New Mexicans.''

Dendahl said Richardson has ``done a lot to curry favor with people in New Mexico, but he's also done a lot to anger people in New Mexico.''

Dendahl, a businessman, finished third in a four-way GOP primary for governor in 1994, getting 19 percent or 18,007 votes. He served as chairman of the state Republican Party from late 1994 until May 2003.

He ran into trouble within GOP circles for expressing support for former Gov. Gary Johnson's proposed drug policy changes, such as decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

``It's obvious the Republican Party is in disarray when they put John Dendahl in the governor's race,'' state Democratic Party chairman John Wertheim said Saturday.

``He is a known obstructionist whose views are outside the mainstream, such as on drug legalization,'' Wertheim said. ``The candidates could not be in greater contrast.''