WASHINGTON - Michael Schmitz was a lifelong Democrat before he met Chip Cravaack three years ago at a shopping center in Virginia, a mining town in the heart of Minnesota's Iron Range.

"He came across as a real straight-shooting type of guy, a stand-up guy," recalled Schmitz, a 54-year-old union member and heavy equipment operator at U.S. Steel's Minntac mine near Mountain Iron. "He was more than willing to sit and talk."

At the time, Cravaack was an unknown political quantity, a medically retired pilot and stay-at-home dad. But with the help of voters like Schmitz and other disillusioned Democrats, Cravaack pulled off one of the most stunning upsets of the 2010 elections, edging out DFL stalwart Jim Oberstar, the longest-serving congressional representative in Minnesota.

Now the first-term Republican is seeking to replicate that feat against DFLer and former Congressman Rick Nolan. But even as Cravaack, 52, has deftly navigated the district's blue-collar, union sensibilities, several recent polls show him behind.

"His voting record is not going to help him here," said Denise Cardinal of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a pro-DFL group that has targeted Cravaack for his GOP positions on Medicare reform and tax cuts for the wealthy. "He's been siding with very typical Republican stuff in a not-very-Republican district."

But in countless meetings with union members and other Iron Range workers like Schmitz, Cravaack has tried to emphasize development projects for an economically depressed part of the state, a focus that seeks to cast Nolan as a friend of Twin Cities environmentalists.

"It's all about creating jobs," Cravaack says. "My goal is to have people moving into the Eighth District for opportunities in mining and natural resources, because we're truly blessed in that area."

It's a message that wins points with retired steelworkers like Mike Forsman, a St. Louis County commissioner and lifelong Democrat. "As I watch our community shrinking and foreclosure signs going up everywhere, I'm aware of what far-left policies have done in our region," he said.

But the divisions have not always been easy. "I've had some hard-core Democrats in Ely rip me up and down," said Ely Mayor Roger Skraba, an independent who has come out for Cravaack.

A recent poll commissioned by the Star Tribune found Nolan leading Cravaack 56-38 percent among union members in the district, which some see as a respectable showing for a Republican. To hold his seat, Cravaack needs to stay close enough in places like the Iron Range while piling up votes in the heavily Republican counties outside the Twin Cities' northern suburbs.

But even after the redistricting of the 2010 census, northern Minnesota, anchored by the Lake Superior port of Duluth, remains DFL territory. Voters within the new district lines still would have elected President Obama and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

'Wolf in sheep's clothing'

If Oberstar didn't see Cravaack coming, this year the Democrats are not being caught unawares. Although Nolan was first elected to Congress in 1974, the same year as Oberstar, he has been out of office for the past three decades. He is running with the zest of a greenhorn, much as Cravaack did during the Tea Party wave of 2010.

Viewed by some Washington Democrats as low-hanging fruit in the battle for control of Congress, the traditionally DFL district is now being inundated with more than $6 million in ads by the two major parties and outside groups. This has dwarfed spending by the two candidates, and could turn the contest into one of the most expensive House races in the nation.

In the midst of this, Cravaack has been trying to strengthen his finger-hold on union dissidents like Schmitz, who could help him narrow the gap with organized labor, an important constituency in northern Minnesota where much of the union leadership is against him.

Bob Bratulich, director of United Steelworkers District 11, which has endorsed Nolan, calls Cravaack "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

Union activist Ray Pierce Jr., a millwright at the ArcelorMittal mine in Virginia, Minn., cites Cravaack's pro-management legislative record. The congressman voted to keep the National Labor Relations Board from blocking Boeing's expansion into South Carolina after the airplane builder had experienced union work stoppages in Washington state.

Given that and other high-profile Republican battles with labor -- in particular the recent showdowns with public employee unions in Wisconsin and Ohio -- Cravaack has had to bust out of the GOP mold on collective bargaining and union rights.

He has long emphasized his background as a union pilot at Northwest Airlines, where he faced layoffs, went on strike and organized picket lines. He is also a rare Republican who has voted to support Davis-Bacon legislation requiring the payment of local prevailing wages on public works projects.

'One of the guys'

Cravaack's spotlight on logging and mining also is part of a strategy that plays into the populist strain of North Woods politics that distrusts Washington. He has tried to streamline federal environmental regulations that he says have held back a proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. He also got the U.S. House to approve a land swap to facilitate logging and mining around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a protected area in northeast Minnesota that was established in 1978 with Nolan's active support in Congress.

Cravaack's bread-and-butter focus also has translated into efforts to raise truck weight limits on Interstate highways and to support for controversial construction projects like the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the St. Croix River bridge.

Those positions helped him win the support of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, a rare union endorsement of a Republican, even if it was decided in a meeting of only about 25 out of 3,500 active and retired members who live in the Eighth District. "We support the candidates who support us," said Local 49 political director Jason George.

Finally, Cravaack has tried to tap into the small-town zeitgeist of northern Minnesota with his ardent support of guns and opposition to abortion rights.

Nolan too is running as a hunter and outdoorsman, though the National Rifle Association, which used to support Oberstar, has endorsed Cravaack. Unlike Oberstar, Nolan supports abortion rights.

John Finken, a lifelong steelworker from Warba who appears in one of Cravaack's ads, says he considers Cravaack a "conservative Democrat" who reflects the area's rural way of life. Said Finken: "He's just one of the guys."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.