WASHINGTON - Armed with a Bronze Star and a Princeton education, Afghanistan war veteran Capt. Pete Hegseth says he intends to run for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Amy Klobuchar.
"I can tell you the paperwork's in the mail," Hegseth told the Star Tribune on Tuesday. "It is very much all systems go."
With a formal announcement planned for next week, Hegseth said he is already putting together a campaign staff led by North Branch campaign operative Anne Neu, who helped Minnesota Republican Chip Cravaack unseat veteran DFL congressman Jim Oberstar in 2010.
Hegseth, 31, has not run for public office before. But he is well known in Republican circles as executive director of Vets for Freedom, a now-dormant national group that supported former President George W. Bush's surge in Iraq, where Hegseth also served.
GOP activists so far have not rallied around any contender. And with no big names in the Minnesota GOP readying to take on a popular DFL incumbent, Hegseth has been hailed among conservatives as a picture-perfect outsider to pick up the GOP mantle in the race.
"He's an outsider, and people like outsiders," said Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Minneapolis where Hegseth has worked as an unpaid senior fellow.
The Army veteran, who lives in Forest Lake, joins three other GOP hopefuls: St. Bonifacius City Council Member Joe Arwood, St. Paul businessman Anthony Hernandez and former state House Rep. Dan "Doc" Severson, who ran unsuccessfully for Minnesota secretary of state in 2010.
Hegseth said right now he's just focused on the GOP endorsement contest. "We're not taking the nomination for granted," he said. "We're not jumping in here thinking this is our nomination to have."
Nor, he said, is he underestimating the strength of Klobuchar, who was elected with 58 percent of the vote and has upwards of $4.6 million in the bank. Klobuchar continues to poll well after five years in the Senate, where she has positioned herself as a moderate who tackles Minnesota-centric consumer issues rather than broad ideological battles.
"We understand the uphill battle," Hegseth said. "We understand she's perceived well. We understand she's got a lot of money, and that a lot of other candidates have decided to hold off and not run against her. But I've never been afraid of long odds, I've never been afraid of the David-vs.-Goliath scenario."
Justin Buoen, a spokesman for Klobuchar's campaign, said that Klobuchar would "continue to focus on fighting for balanced, common-sense solutions for Minnesota, regardless of her opponent."
Like some of Klobuchar's critics on the left, Hegseth, running from the right, seems ready to attack Klobuchar on her greatest political asset: her image as a likable, uncontroversial, centrist Democrat.
"I'm running to represent Minnesota, because we live in times of great consequence," Hegseth said. "I think we deserve leadership that doesn't shy away from large, important issues and problems facing our nation."
As a leader of Vets for Freedom, Hegseth became a national spokesman for the Bush administration's war aims, as well as a critic of President Obama's push to set withdrawal timetables for U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan.
While the war has been an important "personal" issue for him, Hegseth said he does not expect it to be central in the Senate race. Rather, he plans to campaign as a "fiscal conservative who believes in limited government."
Hegseth is married, with a 20-month-old son and another baby on the way. He describes himself as a social conservative. Partly for that reason, he wants to immediately address his 2009 divorce, which he says is a matter of public record.
"It's something folks will bring up, so I want to be candid and proactive about it," he said. "I've certainly sought forgiveness from God, family and friends. I'm not hiding from it."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.