Minneapolis Rep. Mark Kennedy, a 49-year-old former small-town accountant and businessman, is carrying the hopes of the national Republican Party in one of the few Senate races in the country where the GOP has a chance of gaining a seat.
The voluntary retirement of Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., this year has opened the way for a newcomer, and Dayton's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has given its endorsement to Amy Klobuchar, the two-term elected attorney of Hennepin County (Minneapolis).
In one sense, Kennedy is on familiar ground. After beating the male Democratic incumbent in his first race in 2000, he faced women candidates in both his re-election bids. Despite their spending about $2 million each against him, he won with votes to spare.
Minnesota has become a two-party battleground, with Republicans holding the governorship and the other Senate seat. President Bush lost the state by less than 3 percent of the vote in each of his races.
But now, as Gov. Tim Pawlenty put it in an interview, "the president continues to struggle here," with approval scores below 40 percent. When I asked Kennedy in an interview if he agreed with the opening words of his profile in the current edition of Congressional Quarterly, the authoritative source on Congress, describing him as "a dedicated conservative and loyal Bush supporter," he seemed surprised.
"I don't know if I'd use any of those words to describe me," he said. And he offered an alternative. "I'd say I'm a common-sense Minnesota conservative informed by the values we care about from a Midwest perspective."
Kennedy said, "The attack on me is that I'm a lap dog of the president. It's saying that I don't think independently, that I don't have a set of core values that I was raised with and have been living by. To have an organization as reputable as CQ fall into that trap, I just don't know."
But in an interview here, Klobuchar said, "He supports the president's position 97 percent of the time." CQ did score Kennedy as voting in agreement with Bush's wishes on 98 percent of the roll calls in 2003 and 97 percent in 2004, before dropping to 87 percent last year, as he began to prepare for the Senate race.
Kennedy points out that even as a freshman in 2001, he opposed the president by voting against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and against the creation of the No Child Left Behind education program.
Klobuchar dismisses those as easy votes for any Minnesota politician responsive to local opinion. But Kennedy says he is genuinely bipartisan in approach and cites "at least 15" issues on which he has teamed with Democrats to work for passage, such as environmental protection and a program to make it easier for scientists to become teachers.
Kennedy's struggle to prove his independence is typical for Republicans running in competitive races from New Jersey to Washington state, as Bush's ratings have sunk. And this race is clearly a challenge for the GOP. Klobuchar's political base in this population center of the state has given her more media exposure in her six years than Kennedy has gained from his work on the Agriculture and Transportation Committees from his suburban-rural House seat in a similar period.
Klobuchar's record of criminal prosecutions and consumer advocacy was strong enough that she ran unopposed for re-election. The Klobuchar name is further enhanced by her father, a longtime favorite local sports columnist now retired but on the speaking circuit for his daughter.
Klobuchar faces nominal opposition in a September primary from an underfinanced advocate of immediate pullout from Iraq. She says she opposed the war from the beginning but now supports the view taken by most Senate Democrats that a pullout should begin this year, but no deadline should be set for completing it.
Kennedy says that he believes Iraq is "important to winning the war on terror and my opponent wants to pull the troops out without regard to the commanders in the field and without achieving the milestones" marking the road to victory.
They have similarly sharp differences on taxes and health care. But the biggest question, as both of them see it, is who can capture the "change vote." Kennedy says, "Clearly, there is a frustration with what is going on in Washington. The spending and the partisanship is a big part of it. But I have a track record to talk about. I work in this institution the way Minnesotans would want."
Klobuchar says that won't wash. Her slogan is simple. "He's followed the Lone Star. I'll follow the North Star."