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In Minnesota, four years makes a big difference

With dramatic wins in 2002, Republican Norm Coleman was elected senator and Republican Tim Pawlenty governor. Maybe this state – once the home of classic liberal Democrats Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone, was becoming Republican.  By Tom Curry in St. Paul. [!]
Amy Klobuchar, Mark Kennedy, Robert Fitzgerald
Minnesota's senatorial candidates debated on Sunday. Independence Party candidate Robert Fitzgerald, center, Republican Mark Kennedy, left, and Democrat Amy Klobuchar.Jim Mone / AP
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Four years ago, Republicans had lofty hopes for Minnesota.

With dramatic wins in 2002, Republican Norm Coleman was elected senator and Republican Tim Pawlenty governor. Maybe this state – once the home of classic liberal Democrats Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone, was becoming Republican.

But this year GOP Senate candidate Mark Kennedy has never seemed to catch fire in his race against Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

In no opinion poll has Kennedy been ahead and some observers in Washington and here in Minnesota have written off any chance of him winning this Senate seat.

To a degree Kennedy blames the news media and its polling for his plight. “The polling by a lot of the media outlets is deliberately designed to discourage the base,” he argued. “You’ll see a lot of our real base would just be energized by seeing the media really trying to steal the election.”

Kennedy’s campaign has a particular grievance with Minneapolis Star Tribune polling which Kennedy loyalists think is skewed to favor Klobuchar. The most recent Star Tribune poll in early October had Kennedy 21 points behind her.

But Kennedy is fighting on and, if he wins on Nov. 7, it will be one of the most startling upsets in recent history.

With seemingly nothing to lose by being brutally frank, Kennedy has gone on TV with a somber, almost funereal, ad that says “We’ve made some mistakes in Iraq” but “leaving Iraq now will create a breeding ground for new attacks on America.”

Kennedy concludes the ad by saying he paid for it “even though I know it may not be what you want to hear.”

Kennedy's candor
As he campaigned in St. Paul over the weekend Kennedy, told me: “I act in this case on principle, not politics. I’m not tapping into a deep reservoir of a majority of people who want to hear what I am saying, but I have strong and deep convictions driven by the pleading of soldiers in the field to make sure that Americans understand the consequences of losing.”

Even the liberal-leaning newspaper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, in its endorsement of Klobuchar on Sunday, gave Kennedy credit for candor. “Even those opposed to the war must recognize his straight talk as admirable,” the paper’s editorial said.

But however admirable his straight talk is, it may have come too late to change the momentum of the race. It does seem that the more despairing that Minnesotans get about Iraq, the more Klobuchar looks like a winner.

In some ways this race resembles the one between Republican Sen. Rick Santorum and Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania. Like Kennedy, Santorum has focused in the final weeks on Iraq and national security; like Klobuchar, Casey has been somewhat specific, but not too specific about what he’d do about Iraq.

“She (Klobuchar) says the answer is diplomacy. Who are you going to negotiate with? Are you going to negotiate with al Qaida? With the Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups?” Kennedy asks. He dismissed her statements as “hollow rhetoric” — and asks “who lets her get by with this?” His implication: the liberal-oriented news media.

Portraying himself as the candidate of the soldiers, Kennedy on conservative Minneapolis talk radio station KTLK Friday went so far as to say, “If my choice was getting 50 percent plus one of the vote in Minnesota or 75 percent of the vote among soldiers in Iraq, I’d take the 75 percent among soldiers in Iraq, because they are so frustrated with people politicizing the war.”

Kennedy and the consequences of losing
Kennedy told KTLK host Jason Lewis that when he visits Iraq, soldiers tell him, “they are so concerned that Americans are going to lose their will because people aren’t telling both sides of the story, aren’t telling the consequences of losing, aren’t telling them that we can win this if we just adapt to win, rather than think about how quickly we can retreat.”

It is “not a question of whether we can win the war operationally on the ground. We can. And we can’t let Americans lose their will to do what’s necessary -- because this is an enemy that will follow us home.”

That “follow us home” formulation is the same one President Bush used in his interview Friday with the Wall Street Journal.

Why has Kennedy apparently not been able to gain ground on Klobuchar?

The candidates’ debate Sunday night offered some answers: Kennedy was never able to land a solid rhetorical punch on Klobuchar when it came to the issue of Iraq. He did not dramatize in flesh-and-blood terms what it would mean for Minnesota if al Qaida and other terrorist groups transformed Iraq into one giant permanent military base.

And Klobuchar was skilled at sticking to a non-military message: the solution to Iraq’s turmoil would come by “working with other countries” and “bringing the world together to help this country take care of its civil war.” She did not say she’d vote to cut off funds for the Iraq deployment and did not say what date she’d seek for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Personality might also be part of the answer to why this race is where it is.

Greeting Kennedy at a St. John’s College football game on Saturday, one of his supporters Tom Brodmerkle, said that Kennedy’s new TV ad is effective partly because he looks right at the camera.

His previous ads, Brodmerkle said, made some people wonder “Is he so shy?” He said people have an image of Kennedy being “smart, and a little reticent.”

But it may also be that Kennedy’s difficulties indicate the Republican hopes for a realignment of this state were too optimistic.

“This is a state that has reached its limit of classic liberalism and it’s adjusting to a politically competitive state,” said Pawlenty two years ago. “The great thing about the Minnesota Democrats, from a Republican standpoint, is that they are incapable of Clintonizing. They just will not allow themselves to go to the center; they won’t embrace centrist Democratic approaches.”

But Klobuchar has used a strategy of calling for generic “change” and urging tax increases only on the top echelon of Americans. She’s not in any way the firebrand Wellstone was.

Kennedy’s lack of traction may mean that this is a state that has reached its limit of conservative Republicanism.

Asked about this possibility this weekend, Pawlenty – who’s in his own difficult battle for re-election, told me that Minnesota “is not shifting back (to the Humphrey era). It’s not a Republican state; it’s more of a mainstream state that it used to be, it’s not like it was 30 years ago,  robotically liberal… but in this year, with the difficulties in Washington, there’s a little more headwind for Republicans if you’re going to win in Minnesota.”