ST. CLOUD - Democratic congressional candidate Jim Graves walked into a bar and headed straight for the group wearing the Michele Bachmann for Congress buttons.

Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District, which stretches from exurbs through farmlands and blue-collar towns, has been Bachmann country since 2006, when the conservative lawmaker bootstrapped herself into the U.S. House of Representatives. She has fended off every Democratic and third-party challenger since then and become an icon to Tea Party Republicans.

But this year, Bachmann is up against an atypical Democrat -- a wealthy businessman who embraces capitalism and has a strong libertarian streak on social issues. By midweek, the two were clashing fiercely over competing ads, with Bachmann labeling Graves as "Big Spending Jim," and Graves accusing her of being more concerned with her national brand than her constituents.

Bachmann canceled the interview she had scheduled for this story. But her campaign spokesman, Chase Kroll, railed against Graves' attempts to appeal to Bachmann's conservative base. "The thing about Jim Graves is that he will say different things depending on the audience he's talking to," Kroll said.

At the Red Carpet nightclub Tuesday night, Graves touted his free-market credentials at a weekly town-hall meeting organized by conservative talk radio host Dan "Ox" Ochsner, of KNSI Radio.

"You know that I love conservatives, because I'm a capitalist. I'm a business guy. I believe in free markets," Graves told them. "I feel very, very comfortable being here with you."

The crowd was packed with Tea Party activists and Bachmann loyalists, some who responded enthusiastically to Graves' easygoing, business-friendly message.

"Why is he running as a Democrat?" lamented Sue Ek, campaign manager for Republican state Rep. King Banaian, a frequent guest on Ochsner's show.

Lawrence Johnson, a retired Tea Party activist from St. Cloud, came to the event sporting a Bachmann sticker on his lapel.

"We love our Michele here" in the Sixth District, he said. But Johnson also found himself liking what Graves had to say. "When he loses," Johnson said, "next fall he can run against Mark Dayton as a Republican."

Bachmann also appears confident that she remains popular in the district that was reconfigured earlier this year.

"What people recognize is that I've worked extremely hard on their behalf," she said in announcing that she would seek a fourth term in Congress. She particularly cited her work in winning approval for the long-delayed St. Croix River crossing, a project also championed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

"I have been at the forefront of that effort to make sure that it successfully goes through," Bachmann said in late January. "People see that I have laid it on the line."

Ad wars

Wealthy enough to self-finance a congressional campaign, Graves is hitting Bachmann hard on jobs and the economy. Earlier this week his campaign began rolling out television ads, including a spot that blasted Bachmann for not personally reaching out to workers laid off from the Sartell paper mill in her district.

"She's too worried about her own career ... to worry about anyone else," a montage of laid-off mill workers announce to the television camera. "We need someone focused on Minnesota's middle class again. ... We need a representative who cares about us."

That set off a barrage from the Bachmann camp, which called the ad "dishonest and irresponsible," noting that Bachmann sent staffers to Sartell, letters of encouragement to workers and a flag that had flown over the Capitol to a fundraiser for the family of the worker killed in the explosion that led to the mill's closure.

In an interview, Graves said he thinks Bachmann's reputation for inflammatory, divisive statements will push more of her former supporters toward his campaign.

"Headlines are great if you want to be a movie star or a rock star, but that isn't what the people want in the district," he said.

Unlikely battleground

At the beginning of the year, the Sixth looked like an unlikely battleground. Redistricting had drawn Bachmann out of her old district, but the new Sixth is even more staunchly conservative than the old one, and Bachmann has a higher national profile than ever after her short-lived presidential run.

This is the first election in years where there is no independent candidate in the race to potentially siphon off votes from the Democrat. Bachmann also has come under harsh criticism from national leaders in her own party for controversial statement's she's made. Prior to Bachmann's election, the Sixth was a reliable swing district. Between 1963 and 2003 it flipped eight times between Democrats and Republicans.

"Privately, many Republican leaders who viewed Bachmann as a bit of a nuisance, but off on her own island, are now starting to see her as a potential threat [who could] rub off on the party's brand," said David Wasserman, who tracks congressional races for the Cook Political Report.

Jay Mews, a St. Cloud resident who says he usually gravitates toward independent candidates, went to listen to Graves.

"Michele Bachmann is the gift that keeps on giving to the press," he said. "All these crazy conspiracy theories are distracting from the real issues. I'm looking for the real deal." said Mews, who is unemployed and who says he's looking for the candidate with the strongest message on jobs and the economy.

After a recent internal Graves campaign poll that showed Bachmann just 2 percentage points ahead, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee bumped the Sixth District into its "emerging races" category and committee chairman Rep. Steve Israel mentioned the race as one that could be a "tipping point" to return the U.S. House to Democratic control. But so far, national interest has not translated into an influx of donations, unlike Minnesota's Eighth, where national groups are pumping millions into ad campaigns aimed at unseating Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack.

'She votes perfectly'

Bachmann has seized on the sudden uncertainty about her seat as a means of raising even more money.

"Could Bachmann lose?" read the subject line in one fundraising letter. "That was the headline this morning on the Huffington Post: Could Bachmann lose? And, Fellow Conservative, the answer is without your immediate support, yes."

Ochsner, for one, thinks Bachmann still has a firm hold on her base.

"The people I hang with, the people who call into my show, a lot of them are Tea Partiers, a lot of them are very, very conservative," he said. "Michele Bachmann has a perfect conservative record. She votes perfectly. ... I can't see any reason why a conservative would vote against a known quantity like her."

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049