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U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann is leading Democratic challenger Jim Graves heading into the final weeks of the campaign, according to a new poll commissioned by the Star Tribune.
Bachmann, who is waging one of the most expensive House campaigns in the nation against a political newcomer, is favored by 51 percent of likely voters in Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District, which stretches from west of St. Cloud to the Wisconsin border. Another 45 percent would choose Graves, a St. Cloud native and owner of Graves Hospitality Corp., an expansive hotel chain. Four percent of voters are undecided.
The Oct. 16 poll by Pulse Opinion Research sampled 1,000 likely voters in the Sixth and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Bachmann spent part of Saturday stumping at an American Legion fundraiser in Forest Lake.
"Michele is thrilled by the outpouring of support and is honored to have each and every vote. She will work hard until all the votes are counted," campaign spokesman Chase Kroll said in response to the poll. "This poll is another indication that Michele's proven track record of fighting for Minnesota families has strong support across the Sixth District."
Unfazed by the poll results, Graves was also out campaigning Saturday, shaking hands and admiring the goods at a craft fair in Blaine.
"The only poll that counts is Nov. 6," Graves said. "We're going to continue working diligently to the last minute. ... We're going to continue getting the message out and hope that the electorate has an informed opinion on the day of the election. And if they do, I think it's going to go our way."
"All the polls are showing that this is a tight race," campaign manager Adam Graves said. The campaign's internal polls show Graves within 2 points of Bachmann. A recent KSTP poll showed her with a 9-point lead.
Bachmann was viewed favorably by 46 percent of likely voters and unfavorably by 45 percent in the two-person race. She ran strongest among men, conservatives and middle- and upper-income voters between 30 and 64. She also gets the support of 46 percent of independents.
Matthew Barber, a railroad company manager from Ramsey for whom fiscal issues are a top concern, says he is a staunch Bachmann supporter. "Michele Bachmann is very much along the lines of trying to bring fiscal sanity back to Congress," he said. "Although I shouldn't say back; that implies that there was fiscal sanity to begin with."
A California transplant, Barber, 49, takes a small delight in Bachmann's high profile and likes when friends back in California recognize his congresswoman. "She's made herself by being outspoken," he said.
Not surprisingly, Bachmann enjoyed widespread support among evangelical Christians -- two-thirds said they would support her. But she also holds an edge among Catholic voters, 52 percent to 43 percent, even though Graves is Catholic.
Graves, however, holds his own among women, winning about half their votes. He also takes nearly half of independents and slightly more than half of those making less than $40,000.
He scores big with voters younger than 30 -- 60 percent favor him -- and gets a little over half of the senior vote. Overall, 37 percent of poll respondents view him favorably while the same percentage view him unfavorably and about a fifth of voters say they have a neutral impression of him.
Beth Grendahl-Hoff, of Anoka, says she's supporting Graves. A Democrat, Grendahl-Hoff said she knows many Republicans and independents who are tired of Bachmann's outsized national profile.
"I think a lot of people kind of feel like she's really in it for herself, for the headlines," Grendahl-Hoff said. "Michele Bachmann's been in office so long, and she's done so little for her district."
Bachmann's brief presidential campaign helped build that profile even further and left her with a nationwide network of donors who have helped her raise more than $11 million for her House campaign.
But her high-profile run -- in which the Iowa-born Bachmann regularly identified herself as an Iowan, not a Minnesotan -- doesn't seem to have given her much of a bump back home. More than a third of respondents said the national campaign made them less likely to vote for the three-term incumbent. But 54 percent said it made no difference to them.
Economic issues weigh heavily on the Sixth District this year, with 46 percent naming jobs and economic growth as the issues that will most influence their vote. No other issue even came close.
Domestic issues such as Social Security and health care came in a distant second at 15 percent, followed closely by taxes and government spending. Only 10 percent named cultural issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, while national security ranked last at 7 percent.
The Graves campaign has been hitting Bachmann on economic issues, including the recent shutdown at the Verso Paper Corp. mill in Sartell, and working to cast Graves as the pro-business candidate in the race.
But when asked which candidate would be more effective at working to improve the economy and create jobs in the district, 49 percent of poll respondents named Bachmann, 43 percent picked Graves and 7 percent were undecided.
Bachmann, meanwhile, has been running commercials trying to tie Graves to the Obama administration's health care reforms -- even though he wasn't in Congress when the legislation passed. The strategy could resonate in a district where 55 percent of voters have said they wanted to see the Affordable Health Care Act repealed and only 38 percent want to keep it in place.
Bachmann has taken to mentioning GOP presidential nominee and onetime rival Mitt Romney more often and has even been holding debate-watching parties to cheer him. Poll results could explain why -- Romney is running slightly stronger in her district than Bachmann is, with 54 percent of respondents saying they would vote for Romney. Only 39 percent would for President Obama.
Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049