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WASHINGTON - The race to unseat conservative icon Michele Bachmann in Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District is increasingly a national affair.
Reliably provocative, a constant presence on cable TV news, Bachmann's polarizing national profile has energized supporters and opponents alike, turning what would otherwise be an easy romp in Minnesota's most solidly Republican district into a contest being watched around the country.
A Star Tribune analysis shows that 63 percent of the Minnesota Republican's major donations in the last three months come from outside the state. Meanwhile, DFL challenger Tarryl Clark, a state senator from St. Cloud, saw nearly 30 percent of her major donations come from outside Minnesota.
Bachmann, positioning herself in fundraising letters as a "top target" of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, raised more than $800,000 in the last three months alone, leaving her with $1.5 million in the bank.
Meanwhile, Clark has raised $1.1 million, more than any other non-incumbent House candidate in Minnesota at this stage in the race.
Both have gotten help from far away.
"The support needs to go to where people are in trouble," said Gary Rosengreen, a retired businessman in Atlanta who gave $250 to Bachmann. Because Georgia is fairly safe Republican territory, Rosengreen said, he tries to help candidates for federal office in other states who reflect his conservative views.
"Everything's national now," Rosengreen said. "It affects all of us. The battle goes on across the nation."
The other Sixth District challenger, DFLer Maureen Reed, had about 10 percent of her major donations from out of state and has lent her campaign money to keep it going.
Thomas Brown, an 84-year-old retired farmer from western Nebraska, donated to Clark's campaign after receiving a letter from a liberal organization -- he doesn't remember which. A financial supporter of Al Franken, Brown said Bachmann's cable television appearances motivated him to give.
"In my estimation, Michele Bachmann, she's crazy," Brown said. "Plum crazy."
A stranglehold on the Sixth
But even as Bachmann has become a piñata for liberal detractors from the Huffington Post to "The Daily Show," the telegenic conservative appears to have a solid lock on the district, a sickle-shaped swath of outer suburbia running about 100 miles from St. Cloud to Stillwater.
While opinions about Bachmann divide strongly along party lines, 53 percent of her constituents approve of the job she is doing, versus 41 percent who disapprove. That's according to an independent survey done in December by Public Policy Polling, a national Democratic polling firm.
"Michele Bachmann's constituents don't seem to mind her penchant for controversial comments," said Dean Debnam, Public Policy's president. "Given how poorly national Democrats rate in the district, [her constituents] probably agree with a lot of them."
Now more than ever, the case against Bachmann is based on the Democrats' view of her as an ardent culture warrior, more interested in a national platform for her conservative views than her district's high rates of unemployment and foreclosure.
Exhibit A is Bachmann's defiant stand against earmark spending, even for highway and transit projects in her district that she supports. Exhibit B is a stream of television appearances and missed votes, an outgrowth of her celebrity.
Her pop star image notwithstanding, Republicans see Bachmann's suburban populism as tailor-made for a central Minnesota district where diversity is marked by the denominations of its churches and the age of its suburbs.
"That congressional district is a perfect fit for her voting record, her speaking style, and the issues that she talks about," said Michael Brodkorb, deputy chair of the Minnesota GOP Party and a native of Forest Lake, a Sixth District bedroom community with a strong working-class streak.'Money wasted'
By any strict political calculation, the Sixth District should be red-meat Republican. It has a higher GOP voting index than the congressional districts represented by U.S. Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen, relatively safe Minnesota Republicans who are far less likely to face tough challenges in November.
To some observers, the Democrats' laser focus on Bachmann is more about passion than logic.
"It's money wasted," said Aubrey Immelman, a former Republican candidate and professor at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict. "But if you're an activist Democrat, this is where the fight is."
What gives Democrats some hope this year is that Bachmann won reelection in 2008 with just 46 percent of the vote -- well under the critical 50 percent mark -- and far less than the 53 percent for John McCain, who was at the top of the GOP ticket.
Political analysts note two extenuating circumstances. First, Bachmann was in a three-way race with an Independence Party candidate who pulled 10 percent of the vote. Second, she withstood a withering barrage of criticism after going on MSNBC's "Hardball" show a few weeks before the election and opining that Obama had "anti-American views."
After downplaying the uproar at first, Bachmann now embraces her earlier comment, riding the Tea Party wave and saying "Now I look like Nostradamus," the 16th century French seer.
The "Hardball" furor was a fundraising bonanza for her 2008 DFL opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg, who finished with 43 percent -- just three percentage points behind Bachmann.
But the incident also elevated Bachmann's nationwide profile and fundraising base, which hit a new peak this month when Bachmann linked arms with kindred spirit Sarah Palin at the Minneapolis Convention Center for a mega-rally that drew an estimated 10,000.
"She actually secured her base with her 'Hardball' appearance, and she's only grown in strength since," said Immelman, who supported 2006 DFL candidate Patty Wetterling but who now plans to put his own name on the ballot again as either a Republican or an independent. "The crazier she becomes, the more popular she becomes, and the more of a celebrity."
But Bachmann's supporters, who see her as crazy like a fox, also understand that her celebrity can be a double-edged sword.
"Because she's out there in the media so much, there's more opportunity to get into a negative spotlight," said Adam Ulbricht, a member of the College Republicans at St. Cloud State University.
'The Ventura effect'
As much as Bachmann likes to press Democrats' buttons with her apocalyptic rhetoric about "gangster government," economic "socialism" and health care "death panels," the liberal backlash against her appears to fortify her position in the district.
Whether true or false, Bachmann's rhetoric resonates in small towns and far-flung suburbs, where many voters are alienated from the Washington establishment and take pride in their crusty independence.
John Wodele, a former spokesman for Tinklenberg and ex-Gov. Jesse Ventura, calls it "the Ventura effect."
"A majority of the people that are voting are driving down the road in their cars, listening to the radio, and smiling at how Congresswoman Bachmann stirs things up. They like that," Wodele said.
He notes that Ventura's blunt, outspoken style did well in Anoka and other voter-rich parts of the district in the late '90s, making it fertile ground for Bachmann's personality.
The great unknown is how much of that populist streak might get siphoned off by another third-party challenge, given a crowded field that includes Bob Anderson, the Independence Party candidate who got 10 percent of the vote in 2008.
In a close election, Bachmann's fate could still be decided by an Anderson or some other relatively unknown candidate who either splits the anti-Bachmann vote, or merely divides those who simply won't vote for a Democrat.
"That's the X-factor," said Kay Wolsborn, a political scientist at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict. "It's not a race that can be ignored as a done deal."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.