MANKATO - In a swath of Minnesota that's not politically safe for either party, the race to oust freshman U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., is heating up.
So far, the campaign has been overshadowed by the historic and dramatic presidential campaign season, but it's gaining steam as Republicans prepare to endorse a candidate Saturday at their First District convention in Albert Lea.
Two of the contenders, state Rep. Randy Demmer of Hayfield and Mayo Clinic doctor Brian Davis, have agreed to support whomever the party endorses.
But with greater name recognition, a rebel attitude attractive to some voters and more money than his opponents, state Sen. Dick Day is waiting in the wings.
Day, of Owatonna, is skipping the GOP endorsement process and running in the September primary.
"He's banking on there being a bigger slice [of voters] in the middle than the other candidates think there is," said Darrell Downs, chairman of the Political Science Department at Winona State University.
While Day is the assumed front-runner in a primary, according to some leaders in both parties, he isn't wringing his hands about not going after the Republican endorsement.
'A nice, clean campaign'
"I'm going to let the people have a voice," Day said of his decision to run in the primary. "It's going to be a nice, clean campaign."
Demmer declined to criticize Day's decision.
"I don't know if I can say it'll harm the party," Demmer said. "It'd be better if there was only one Republican running against Tim Walz."
Davis opened his campaign by making the rounds at county fairs last year, but no one expects the campaign to kick into high gear until after the endorsement. Day and the endorsed candidate then will have five months to make their cases to voters before the primary on Sept. 9.
In preparation for the endorsing convention, Demmer and Davis are targeting delegates, holding talks in coffee shops, meeting in homes and, in Demmer's case, wooing delegates by phone after long days at the Legislature.
Davis is at a disadvantage, jumping into the race without name recognition equal to his elected opponents, but he has cut back on his workload at Mayo so he can campaign. He said that's helped him even the playing field.
With his competitors tied up at the Legislature, some say Davis has a unique opportunity to get out and be seen, especially as the only nonpolitician challenger to Walz, who was a high school teacher in Mankato when he knocked off six-term Rep. Gil Gutknecht in 2006.
"Davis has an enormous opportunity in the change and hope of, 'Let's do something different,' that [Democratic presidential candidate Barack] Obama is campaigning on," said GOP activist Sarah Janecek.
Davis' outsider status is what appeals to Julie VonRuden of Owatonna, an undecided voter weary of the Bush administration.
"He could be a very exciting person," she said. "He could certainly bring something new to the table."
But Walz still is playing on the same appeal, emphasizing his schoolteacher roots and former participation in the Army National Guard. With little more than a year in Congress under his belt, he hopes that voters still see him as an everyman politician who is regularly spotted in town bowling with his family or holding impromptu discussions with constituents.
"He's very much a person of the people, for the people," said Kaitlin Schaefer of Mankato.
Political, business experience
Demmer and Day are campaigning on experience and publicly vetted records, which, combined with their business experience, are big pluses in the eyes of Dave Alexander of Dover, a traveling salesman.
Walz's challengers criticize him for voting more with congressional liberals than his 2006 campaign had indicated, but Downs said Walz's back-and-forth is necessary in a district that, before Gutknecht, was represented by Democrat Tim Penny, who served the southeastern Minnesota district from 1982 through 1994. Gutknecht won election when Penny retired.
"[The district is] not a safe haven for Democrats or Republicans," Downs said.
In a telephone interview from Washington, Walz said that he's been focusing on his work in Congress but expects to unleash his force of 2,000 volunteers on a door-knocking campaign as soon as Republicans endorse their candidate.
"We're highly organized," he said. "We're highly energetic."
With incumbency on his side, he's managed to amass a much greater campaign treasury and a grass-roots campaign organization, far outpacing the Republicans' reported dozens to 100 volunteers.
Walz has large money edge
According to their campaigns, Walz has raised $1.1 million, Davis has raised about $160,000, Day $210,000 and Demmer about $205,513.
"There's no point in [Walz] displaying the image of a candidate that's panicky," Downs said. "Tim Walz has an edge at this stage of the race."
All three Republicans call themselves social conservatives who take a tough stance against illegal immigration and are against a firm timetable for the U.S. military pulling out of Iraq.
However, Davis said he's particularly qualified as a current physician and former engineer to tackle health care, energy policy and stem cell research, which he supports with the use of amniotic fluid or reprogrammed skin cells instead of human embryos.
"I'm not a career politician," he said of the experiences he could bring to Washington.
"It comes down to a personality contest," Janecek said of the Republican candidates. "I don't see a front-runner."
Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391
Family: Wife, Lori, and four children
Education: B.S. in nuclear engineering, University of Illinois; M.S. and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; M.D., University of Illinois, Chicago
Work: Mayo Clinic physician, dealing mostly with cancer patients
Key issues: Opposes abortion rights, supports constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman, favors developing alternative energy sources and opening Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas exploration
Family: Wife, Kathy, and three daughters
Education: B.A. in agricultural business administration, University of Minnesota
Work: State legislator, former business owner and operator of corn and soybean farm
Key issues: Protecting the rights of the unborn and marriage as between a man and woman, opposes tax increases and advocates eliminating sanctuary policies that help illegal immigrants
Family: Wife, Janet, and four children
Education: Winona State University graduate
Work: State senator and former minority leader, former salesman for IBM, U.S. Navy veteran
Key issues: Issue cards to legal immigrants that use biometrics to identify them, crack down on sanctuary cities and impose mandatory prison sentences for repeat illegal immigrants
Family: Wife, Gwen, and two children
Education: B.S. in social science education, Chadron State College in Nebraska; master's in educational leadership, St. Mary's University; pursuing doctorate in educational leadership from St. Mary's
Work: Member of Congress, former high school teacher and retired Army National Guard command sergeant major
Issues: Improving veterans health care and programs, exploring alternative fuel and energy sources, and improving transportation infrastructure, including more funding for upgrading Hwy. 14, which runs through the district