Candidates agree on one thing: the deciding factor in this fall's election will be employment.
WASHINGTON - Randy Demmer, a Minnesota House Republican running for Congress, is taking heat these days for suggesting that some laid-off workers are spurning job offers in this down economy to collect long-term unemployment benefits.
The problem, he says, was brought to his attention by Charles Barry, CEO of Twin City Fan Cos. Ltd.
Demmer argues that jobless benefits can act as an impediment to private-sector hiring, a view that has made him a prime target for Democrats launching an election-year jobs offensive.
"Rep. Demmer is blaming unemployment on the very Minnesotans struggling to make house payments and feed their families," Minnesota DFL Party spokeswoman Kristin Sosanie said. "It's disgusting."
The exchange, played out in Washington last week as the Democrat-controlled House and Senate extended long-term unemployment benefits through Nov. 30, underscores how jobs and the economy have become prime political fodder on both sides of the partisan divide.
Even in Minnesota, with a 6.8 percent unemployment rate -- well below the national average of about 9.5 percent -- Democrats and Republicans are readying their campaign messages for the fall election season.
"First, it's going to be jobs. Then, after that, it's going to be jobs," said John Schadl, a longtime DFL strategist and spokesman for Congressman Jim Oberstar. "You're going to hear it again and again."
Republicans, pointing to what some economists call a "jobless" recovery, say they welcome a debate on President Obama's $800 billion stimulus program, which the House passed last year with no Republican votes.
"It's been fairly clear the stimulus has not had a lot of effect in terms of promoting job growth, but it's added a lot to our debt and deficit," said freshman Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn.
But the Congressional Budget Office estimates that stimulus spending boosted employment by somewhere between 1.2 million to 2.8 million jobs, despite continued job losses through 2009.
"But for the Recovery Act [the stimulus program], we would have slipped into a Depression," said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., in a floor statement on the budget last week.
Echoing Democrats' refrain that things could be much worse, Franken noted that job losses approached 800,000 in a single month when President George W. Bush left the White House.
But House Democrats know they will need to take a more positive message to voters in November. They are pressing a series of new jobs initiatives, including an effort championed by Franken and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., aimed at preserving up to a million jobs for teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public sector workers.
In the face of GOP calls for tax cuts to promote business growth, Ellison argues that "public sector jobs promote private jobs too...They boost the economy."
Peterson walks the line
Against growing international concern about government budget deficits, new spending programs are becoming a tougher sell, even for some Democrats.
"They're going to try and make jobs an issue," said Rep. Collin Peterson, a centrist "Blue Dog" Democrat from northwestern Minnesota. "But to be honest, it's difficult for the government to do much about this."
While Peterson sided with the Republicans against the stimulus package, he stuck with Democrats last week in voting for a $34 billion extension of unemployment benefits, which some analysts see as the only new "stimulus" spending likely to get through Congress this year.
Without the jobless package, state officials estimated that about 70,000 Minnesotans would have seen their benefits expire starting in late August and early September. As it is, about 1,000 Minnesotans a week exhaust their benefits, according to Kirsten Morell of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Peterson saw his vote on jobless benefits as helping break a stalemate between Democrats and the GOP, which opposed the extension on the grounds that it will be financed by more deficit spending.
Who's playing politics?
Democrats have used the standoff to portray Republicans as callously willing to put off emergency help for the jobless, normally a bipartisan concern, in order to highlight the nation's high unemployment rate before the election.
Franken also said this weekend that Republicans don't want a jobs bill to pass before the election because it would help Democrats politically, prompting the state Republican Party to demand an apology.
Minnesota's John Kline, the ranking Republican on the House Labor and Education Committee, argues that it was the Democrats who played election-year politics with unemployment, refusing to accede to GOP demands to offset the cost of extending benefits by carving the money out of other programs, as they did last year. "We're not against unemployment insurance," Kline said. "We just think it should be paid for."
Obama, in a Rose Garden speech, accused Republicans of selective attention to the deficit. "The same people," he said, "didn't have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans."
Kline, Paulsen and Minnesota's other House Republican, Michele Bachmann, have hewed to the GOP view that maintaining the Bush tax cuts is not the same as a spending initiative for which new funds must be allocated.
All three are advocates for tax cuts for companies like Twin Cities Fan as a way to promote private-sector job growth.
Democrats warn that a Republican takeover of the House, something both sides agree is within reach, would result in a return to the sort of policies that produced the widespread job losses workers are suffering now.
How it plays out in November depends largely on life on Main Street America, where it's decidedly a mixed bag.
Frank Jenko, president of United Steelworkers Local 2705 in Chisholm, Minn., credits stimulus spending with helping reignite the steel industry, which put Hibbing Taconite's 540 hourly employees back to work.
At the same time, he said, "I can look across the street in Chisholm, and of four stores, three are closed."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.