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The baby knocked over a glass of water. Without missing a beat, Rep. Michele Bachmann crouched down to mop up the mess.
"I'm used to it," said Bachmann, who is facing an unexpectedly tough re-election campaign for her fourth term in Congress. "Just like I'm cleaning up the mess in Washington. How many times have I cleaned up spilled milk at home? I was fully prepared to do what I do in D.C."
Bachmann dealt with the puddle, then ran a wet wipe across the baby's cake-covered face for good measure, all while answering a constituent's question about the medical device tax in the president's health care bill. It was Thursday afternoon in Forest Lake, and Bachmann was on the third stop of a daylong swing through the Sixth District.
Just last year, Bachmann was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, packing in crowds across Iowa and New Hampshire. The months since have seen her redistricted out of her old congressional seat, under fire from her party's leadership and facing a Democratic challenger whose polls show him whittling Bachmann's lead in the district to two percentage points. The Democratic candidate, Jim Graves, a wealthy hotel CEO, has been hammering Bachmann for being out of touch with her district.
In letters to supporters, she calls it her toughest race yet.
"I don't take anything for granted," said Bachmann, who has raised almost $16 million this year and spent almost as much. "I need to work extremely hard. I'm a very hardworking person and I'm going to keep that up for the next 40 days."
From Waite Park to Forest Lake
Bachmann has become known for a ferocious brand of partisanship and a knack for stirring controversy that propelled her to the national stage and a short-lived presidential run.
But on Thursday, she began her day in Waite Park, near St. Cloud, talking to adoption officials and foster parents about the challenges they face and touting the bipartisan work she's done with Democrats to promote adoption and fostering.
Next, she headed 88 miles southeast to Forest Lake, and an almost deserted American Legion hall, where Bachmann made a planned stop at the garage sale fundraiser that supports the Legion's annual Fourth of July parade.
Moving quickly, Bachmann greeted Legion members and sale volunteers and bought a golden locket and dog bowl for her beagle, Boomer. She snapped up some tomatoes and tomato sauce at the produce stand outside and sped off to her next stop -- an hourlong meeting with constituents at the Keys Café & Bakery down the road.
Dozens of friendly faces crowded into the coffee house to meet, and sometimes hug, the congresswoman. If Bachmann is in trouble in the Sixth District, there was no sign of it there.
"She has the qualities members of Congress all aspire to have. Hopefully, she won't have any problems," said Karen Morehead, a school board member from Forest Lake who wanted to talk to Bachmann about the bureaucratic maze that surrounds the federal school lunch program.
"She listens, and she follows through," said Bernie Hanson, of Forest Lake. "She's not afraid to say what she believes, and we have to have more of that to stand up for ourselves. ... There's too many of them that don't do that."
Angela Muttonen brought her four young children to meet Bachmann and was delighted when Bachmann helped her pick up her youngest daughter's spilled drink. Bachmann has come under fire for claiming that Islamic fundamentalists are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government, but Muttonen says she finds those statements courageous.
"I supported her when she was running for president. She and I have very similar values," Muttonen said. "No matter how popular or unpopular something is, she always has a reason and a rationale for trying to find out what's going on. ... She had some information, it wasn't popular, but she stuck with it, and that takes a lot of courage, and I thought she did it in a very respectful manner."
Bachmann worked the room for more than an hour, shaking every hand and answering every question.
"I think this truly is the most important election of our lifetime," she said. "I think we all need to pay very strong attention and urge everyone you know to go and vote wisely in this election."
Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049