By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/31/2008 9:26:11 AM ET 2008-10-31T13:26:11

Minnesota Democrat Elwyn "El" Tinklenberg sounded frustrated on Thursday.

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During his debate on Minnesota Public Radio with Rep. Michele Bachmann, Tinklenberg seemed unable to deal with the woman he's seeking to oust from Congress.

Bachmann’s Oct. 17 interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on 'Hardball' has possibly made her, for now, the fourth most famous member of Congress after Barack Obama, John McCain, and Ted Stevens.

She said, “The people Barack Obama has been associating with are anti-American, by and large” and suggested that the news media should investigate members of Congress to find out how many are anti-American.

But in his debate with Bachmann on Thursday, Tinklenberg was stymied, ignored, accused, and at one point interrupted and drowned out by the more aggressive Bachmann.

Four weeks ago, this wasn’t a competitive race. Bachmann, who had raised $2.5 million, was on course to defeat the under-funded Tinklenberg in what is perhaps Minnesota’s most Republican congressional district.

A surge of Democratic donations
But after Bachmann’s 'Hardball' comments, 30,000 contributions rushed in to Tinklenberg’s campaign, with $1.85 million pouring in to his coffers in the 11 days after the interview.

Tinklenberg is a courtly, former Methodist minister who served as mayor of the town of Blaine, as well as the state transportation commissioner. He’s about as far as one could imagine from being an attack dog, which put him at a disadvantage in scrapping with Bachmann.

When the debate moderator, Gary Eichten, asked Bachmann about her 'Hardball' comments, she insisted that voters in her district just didn’t care.

“The number one thing people have been concerned about as they talk to me when I’m all over the district campaigning is the ($700 billion) bailout (of the financial sector)… They’re very upset about the bailout.” She voted against it.

The “anti-American” brouhaha is “not what people are interested in,” Bachmann said. “That isn’t what people have been asking me about…. The only people who bring that up are the media, not the people.”

Video: Bachmann versus Tinklenberg She then hammered again and again on the plan for raising taxes that Democrats supposedly have ready to unveil after the election.

Her constituents “can’t afford to pay punishing increases in taxes,” she argued.

Warning of a tax increase
The Democrats have been in control of the House and Senate, she reminded Eichten, “and they haven’t been shy about what their plans are if they retain control. They plan to increase taxes dramatically.”

Sighing in exasperation, Tinklenberg told Eichten that “The idea that this (her ‘anti-American’ comment) is not an issue in the campaign is simply not credible. It’s what’s given this campaign a national interest.”

In answer to a question about rolling back the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, Tinklenberg avoided giving a direct answer. “There are some of those tax cuts that need to be extended,” he said. “I don’t think that all of them do but I think that many of them do, especially those that focus on the middle class.”

He added, “We need to look at” taxing income on higher-income people, but would not be more specific than that.

But Bachmann was relentless, at every opportunity accusing Tinklenberg and Obama of seeking to raise Social Security taxes and income taxes. “And that is re-distribution of wealth,” she added. Election A to Z

In her closing speech she reverted to that theme: “Compassion begins with the individual, reaching out to help others. But compassion is not taking away people’s money so that I can give it to other people.”

Time and again, during the debate and after it in talking to a gaggle of reporters, Tinklenberg used the word “disappointing.” As he noted with some accuracy, “Rep. Bachmann is just not listening to the answers.”

After the debate he added the word “unfortunate” to his description, but he seemed more frustrated than furious at Bachmann’s tactics.

But Bachmann was playing by different rules: not refuting Tinklenberg in a traditional debate manner, but staying single-mindedly on message and repeating her charges again and again.

She also noted that Tinklenberg supported the bailout which she voted against. As the debate reached its home-stretch, Tinklenberg again sighed in frustration, as he acknowledged that he would have voted for the bailout if he’d been in Congress. “We couldn’t stand there on the floor of the House and just say ‘we’re not going to do anything.’”

Bachmann’s relentless debate performance indicated one would be foolish to write her off. The most recent public poll in the race, one conducted last week by the University of Minnesota, showed the race statistically tied.

“The people in the district have been overwhelmingly supportive,” she said as she hustled to her car after the debate. “One thing I hear everywhere I go, Democrats, Independents they say, ‘Michele, thank you so much for voting against the bailout.”

If Tinklenberg goes to the House
If he can defeat Bachmann, Tinklenberg will have to deal with another formidable woman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Tinklenberg’s description of what he wants to do as a new member of the House is idealistic. His mission he said is “working together, building through addition and not division, reaching across the partisan divide to get things done for the district.”

He noted, “I have never held partisan office. The position of mayor in Blaine was not a partisan position.”

His benign, perhaps utopian view contrasts with the way Pelosi and her aides actually run the House.

It isn’t nonpartisan. And if — as now looks likely — Pelosi’s majority grows from 235 to 250, 260, or more, she’ll have even less need to consider the views of the minority party.

Typically on major legislation, Pelosi does not allow Republicans much, if any input. Often a major bill is presented to the Rules Committee, where almost all legislation must be vetted, late the night before the bill is to be debated on the floor.

The minority party is allowed little opportunity to read and assess a 200 or 300-page bill. On a party-line vote, the Rules Committee usually passes a “closed rule,” which means that Republicans can offer no amendments.

This is pretty much the way the Republicans ran the House when they were the majority. And if Pelosi has an even larger majority, reaching across party lines is not necessary.

But this is not the Tinklenberg vision.

When asked how he would live in such a sharply partisan world, Tinklenberg said, “I don’t have to run defending how things operated in the past…. We’re here to create a culture in which we find ways to work together.”

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