WASHINGTON - Hours after U.S. Rep. Tim Walz showed up at Farmfest in western Minnesota, state GOP officials went to work on a press release dubbing him a "puppet" of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Earlier this month, a DFL volunteer dressed as a dog met Minnesota Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen at a town hall in Edina. The dog's sign read: "Erik Paulsen: Michele Bachmann's lapdog."

It's not exactly the Summer of Love for Minnesotans in Congress, but it's not been the Tea Party summer either.

"It was way more volatile last year," said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

Facing an election in three months that could change control of Congress, incumbents across the nation have had some snarky confrontations this August recess, but little of the rancor of last year's town hall meetings over President Obama's health care overhaul.

Peterson said he has heard little jeering about socialism and death panels that animated last summer's health care debate.

At Corn Capital Days Parade in Olivia, Minn., a man quietly presented Peterson with two tea bags.

"He didn't say anything," Peterson recalled. "He was very nice."

The discontent hasn't evaporated completely. Although Peterson opposed the health care bill and the $787 billion economic stimulus package -- two of Obama's signature domestic initiatives, loathed by Republicans -- he still faces one of the most spirited GOP challenges he's had in years.

Distance from Obama

With an anemic economy foremost in voters' minds, potentially vulnerable Democrats are back home with instructions to focus on jobs and their own districts, even if that means distancing themselves from some of the more controversial aspects of the president's agenda.

Republicans, for their part, have been sent home with a laser focus on government spending and the nation's mounting debt, which -- amid a 9.6 percent national unemployment rate -- could be a major soft spot for the Democrats.

Nowhere are the competing strategies starker than in outstate Minnesota, where Obama's job approval rating has sunk to 39 percent, according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

The White House doesn't mind if House Democrats run on their own.

"We're not going to go to places where people think it's unhelpful that we go," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "That would be crazy."

Walz, the closest thing Minnesota has to a vulnerable Democrat, has not been shy about criticizing fellow Democrats. He's chided House Democratic leaders for putting off a budget blueprint this year, telling voters in southern Minnesota he won't even try to defend the move.

He also reminded voters that he was a no vote on the unpopular 2008 Wall Street bank bailout, which he called "President George W. Bush's original Wall Street bailout."

Bush, in fact, is back on the campaign trail -- if only in name -- invoked by Democrats intent on telling voters that, as bad as things are, they could be worse if the Republicans return to power.

"All of those who've stood with us in the last 18 months know one thing, and that's where we were when we started and where we are today, and what the Republican alternative is," said David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser. "I don't think anyone wants to go back."

While touting the millions of jobs that have been saved under the stimulus program, Walz, like many Democrats in centrist districts, has played defense on two highly contentious Obama initiatives he supported: the health care plan and an unfinished climate- change bill that Republicans say would put a heavy burden on farmers.

Walz's GOP opponent, state Rep. Randy Demmer, went after him at Farmfest, calling the cap-and-trade proposal an "energy tax." The attack provided one of the brightest sparks in an otherwise genial debate.

Peterson's Republican opponent, businessman Lee Byberg, also brought up the Democrats' climate-change bill. Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, had a hand in crafting it.

Peterson and Walz portray the bill as an imperfect starting point for negotiations on a long-term energy bill. In any case, it appears dead, for now, in the Senate.

'They don't attack me'

Rural Democrats like Walz and Peterson know they're up against a concerted Republican effort to align them with the Democratic leadership in Washington.

"They don't attack me. ... They try to say if you get rid of me, you get rid of Pelosi and rein in Obama," Peterson said. "I don't think anyone's buying it."

But Republicans say that voters are buying into the proposition that government spending is out of whack, a marquee issue for the GOP in the fall elections.

"Voters are still angry," said Paulsen, whose Edina town hall was one of the few of the August recess in Minnesota. If the anger seems muted at the moment, he said, that's because "we're still kind of in this cabin season vacation moment."

Paulsen faced questions of his own about the ties that bind the GOP and the Tea Party movement, a connection that was fostered last month when fellow Republican Bachmann formed a "House Tea Party Caucus."

Neither Paulsen nor fellow Minnesota House Republican John Kline joined up, keeping their distance from their telegenic, outspoken colleague.

But even as Democrats seek to wrap the controversial Tea Party around Republicans, they're finding that the movement's long-squabbling factions are either less visible or more polite than they were a year ago.

Said U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a northern Minnesota Democrat: "The fever has abated."

Staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this report Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.