Folks in the Twin Cities' western suburbs have heard plenty about the race to replace retiring Rep. Jim Ramstad. But most of what they've heard has been bad.

In the final days before Tuesday's election, the three candidates vying to succeed Ramstad, who served 19 years in Congress, hit the shopping malls, knocked on doors, and even circulated around the westbound bus stops in downtown Minneapolis to do classic retail politics and try to sway any remaining undecided voters.

The race, for a rare open U.S. House seat in a demographically changing district, has been hotly contested. A poll by Survey USA earlier this week showed Republican Erik Paulsen with 45 percent support, DFLer Ashwin Madia with 44 percent and David Dillon of the Independence Party at 9 percent.

An estimated $8 million will be spent by the candidates and independent groups by the end of the campaign, much of it on television ads and direct mail.

And much of that has been negative, part of the high-stakes clutter that has combined with a well-financed presidential race and a bitter U.S. Senate campaign. But there's been enough to go around in the district by itself.

Recently the Republican congressional campaign committee was accused of darkening Madia's skin tone in an ad (Madia is the son of parents who moved to the United States from India). Republicans have denied it.

Paulsen, a onetime Minnesota House majority leader, has been accused in one ad of being a career politician, looking out for fat cats who are lighting their cigars with dollar bills.

The bitter tone has not gone unnoticed by voters accustomed to more genteel campaigning in a district that has sent a Republican to Congress in every election since 1961.

"I don't like when they call you a liar," one passerby told Madia, a lawyer and Iraq war vet, earlier this week.

"It almost makes me not want to go and vote," a woman told Paulsen, a business analyst at Target and seven-term member of the state House, at a meeting at an assisted-living residence.

After Ramstad

Ramstad remains iconic for many in the district, who speak fondly of his moderation and bipartisanship. Many Democrats also admit to voting for him.

But the times have changed, different candidates are on the ballot and the economy seems to worry many. Suzi Stanley, who works at Edina's Galleria, looked up from sipping a soft drink to shake Madia's hand. She described Ramstad, whom she voted for, "as invincible," but said she will support Madia's message of economic change.

"I want a change so badly," she said after meeting Madia. "Everyone in the mall is hurting. Even people with the cash to spend are afraid to spend it."

Earlier, Chuck Kroll of Edina was at the Galleria waiting for his son's music lesson to conclude. He thanked Madia for his service on learning he was an Iraq war vet but added it was unlikely he would vote for Madia.

"I'm probably going to get drunk and vote for McCain and vote Republican all the way down," he joked.

At a recent visit to the Edendale Retirement Residency, an assisted-living building in Eden Prairie, Paulsen met with residents after mid-morning church services. Many complained of the campaign's negativity, even as Paulsen assured them his ads have been beyond reproach.

June Vavreck, a longtime district resident and an election judge Tuesday, was noncommittal about her vote but was clear the negativity offended her.

"You can't believe either side. Both are being nasty," she complained. She acknowledged supporting Ramstad during his tenure. After hearing Paulsen's pitch as someone who believes Congress is broken and that he has the bipartisan bona fides to help fix it, she reflected on Ramstad's service.

"He didn't do things according to the party," she said. "He did what was best for the people."

Betty Fernandes peppered Paulsen with questions about the national debt and term limits. She suggested that the House Appropriations Committee, which determines funding, be made up mostly of economists instead of politicians.

"I don't like the idea of my grandchildren and their children being loaded down with this debt, not just my son and my daughter," she said.

Normally a strong Democrat, she said she was impressed with Paulsen's answers about a federal constitutional amendment to balance the budget and give the president line-item authority to trim the budget.

"I'll give him some thought," she said.

Third-party wild card

The race does include a third-party wild card who could benefit from partisan dissatisfaction.

Dillon, the Independence Party candidate, operated outside the box earlier this week, seeking potential voters in a completely different congressional district. With aides carrying a cardboard life-size likeness, Dillon glad-handed weary commuters outside the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis at the end of the workday.

Many he approached admitted they were unaware of his candidacy. Eden Prairie resident Mary Drew is well aware of the race and knows an open seat is unusual.

"People say you should vote for the candidate who you believe in, even if it's not a Democrat or a Republican," she said. "I'm just not going to throw a vote away, particularly this election. The stakes are too high."

Dillon, whose media presence has largely been on viral video and the cardboard likeness urging people to Google him, took the gentle rebuffs well.

"People who are going to vote for me are already pretty committed," he acknowledged at one point. "I'm hoping for high winds and sleet on Tuesday." Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636