By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 11/1/2006 6:22:43 PM ET 2006-11-01T23:22:43

Michele Bachmann is a secular liberal’s worst nightmare.

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She’s an articulate, polished, and determined Christian conservative who sponsored a bill to ban same-sex marriage in the Minnesota state Senate -- and now she’s on the brink of winning a seat in Congress.

Standing in her way is another woman who is in almost every way Bachmann’s opposite: Democratic candidate Patty Wetterling, a former high school math teacher and an advocate for missing and exploited children.

After her son Jacob was abducted at age 11, Wetterling pushed for legislation to require sex offenders to register with police.

The Wetterling-Bachmann battle “is the hottest race in the state,” said Jason Lewis, the host of the afternoon politics show on right-wing talk radio station KTLK in Minneapolis. He said there’s more interest in this contest than in the Senate race between Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Republican Mark Kennedy.

“Bachmann has energized the base and that’s why she’s going to win,” Lewis said.

The Bachmann-Wetterling contest has drawn national attention due to the contrast between the two women’s personas and ideologies, but also because they’re fighting for the Sixth Congressional District, a place that, by its voting history, ought to stay in Republican hands.

In 2004 President Bush carried the district with a margin of nearly 55,000 votes, while Wetterling lost her race to Republican Mark Kennedy by 30,000.

Bachmann’s opponents have created a “Dump Bachmann” web site which features video of her recent speech at a church in Brooklyn Park, Minn., in which she said, “God called me to run for the United States Congress.” She said that after the Mark Foley scandal, God had “focused like a laser beam” on her campaign. The outcome of her race had implications “for defeating radical Islam” and “for the future of the family,” she told the congregation.

Asked Wednesday about those comments and whether her opponents had defined her as an extremist, Bachmann stayed strictly on message:  “What I’ve talked about from the very beginning of the campaign until today, and what I’ll talk about until Election Day is the fact that I’m all about cutting taxes…. I’ve said from the very beginning I’m a federal tax lawyer who’s going to cut your taxes. And that’s what people know about me.”

As her answer showed, Bachmann is a disciplined, and smooth politician.

In her campaign she has talked less about her effort to outlaw same-sex marriage than about her tax-cutting zeal. Even though she once opposed the North Star commuter rail project to connect the Twin Cities to the northern suburbs, she said last week, “I’m here to make it work.” She said she’s worried about its excessive costs and the $7,200-per- passenger annual operating subsidy. “We have to find a way to make this system so it’s not cost prohibitive,” she said.

At a panel discussion in St. Cloud where Rep. Tom Petri, R- Wisc., was her guest Friday, she displayed a savvy, in-your-face style.

Petri happens to be the vice chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Bachmann pressed Petri twice on her ambition to serve on the committee if she is elected. “You can make it happen,” she told Petri, with a humorous edge to her voice, drawing laughs from the crowd. “You can see I’m not shy,” she cracked, turning to Petri and adding, “so what’s your answer?”

Wetterling has an unaffected quality; she displays an innocence that is unusual for a person her age (she’s 56).

As we crossed the street from the WCCO studios in Minneapolis where she’d just finished a debate with Bachmann and Independence Party candidate John Binkowski on Saturday, Wetterling spotted a group of young bohemians with placards offering “Free Hugs” to all passersby.

“Oh, ‘free hugs,’ what a great idea,” she said earnestly.

On Iraq, like most Democratic congressional candidates this year she speaks of an undefined “change of direction” and doesn’t specify any date by which she wants U.S. troops out.

When asked how Bush can withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq without endangering American security, Wetterling asked incredulously, “Endangering our security by leaving? Well, some of the generals are saying we’re endangering our own security by staying, that it has become more a breeding ground for terrorists.”

Would Iraq without U.S. troops become a failed state and a terrorist haven as Afghanistan was in the 1990s?

She replied, “It’s time for the Iraqi people to step up and defend their country and create the government that they want to live under.”

On Iraq, Bachmann said in a debate last weekend, “the American people must be dedicated to winning this war; it’s a war against radical Islam. The thing that we know is that the terrorists have declared war on the West and on the United States in particular.”

Asked about the potential –- recently warned of by arms control expert Graham Allison –- of North Korea passing nuclear weapons to al Qaida, which would detonate them in Washington, D.C. or other American cities, Wetterling responded by telling a story about the dangerous Washington public school she once taught in.

“We’ve got our work cut out when it comes to dealing with challenges…. I know that kind of work. I’ve looked at the bad guys; I’ve looked them in the eye,” she said. “When good people pull together, amazing things happen. There’s way more good people in this country than bad; there’s way more good people in the world than bad.”

But is North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il one of the “good people”?

“He’s a thug and now, because of our failed policy, he’s a thug with a bomb,” she replied. “We were working with him and talking to him and we quit talking to him,” she said. “Now he’s got a weapon and it was wrong. We have a failed policy.”

On immigration, Wetterling said in the WCCO debate last weekend that a border fence to stop illegal immigration from Mexico would be ineffective because some migrants would tunnel under it or take “a hot air balloon over it.”

If Wetterling wins, she will step in the footsteps of another Democratic woman who came to the House due to family tragedy: Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, was elected in 1996 after a crazed gunman on a commuter train murdered her husband. McCarthy, pegged at first as only a celebrity candidate, has proven to have a durable House career. (Wetterling has consulted with McCarthy and gotten some strategic counsel.)

And it’s likely that if Bachmann wins, her ambition and skills will move her to the top tier of GOP women in the House, along with conservatives such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

In fact, Bachmann may be all the more prominent since other GOP women in the House might not survive their re-election races: Rep. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado and Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico face arduous election challenges.

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