Democrat emphasizes practical results. Critics say she is protecting her popularity.
STAPLES, MINN. - Neither driving rain nor cold kept U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Wednesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new bridge spanning the railroad tracks that have always cut this town in two.
"Only in Staples would they decide, 'We'll have it outside anyways,'" Klobuchar joked afterward as she warmed up a crowd and her feet in the Stomping Grounds café. "The people are so hardy after having borne out 70 trains a day."
The $7.6 million federal project capped a day of campaign stops in a speeding minivan that took her from a DFL rally in an old Alexandria gas station with a leaky roof to a gleaming new school rebuilt after a tornado that devastated Wadena two years ago.
To Klobuchar, the tour through north-central Minnesota is the "meat and potatoes" of public life, the stuff of factory tours and small town meet-and-greets.
It all adds up to a 59 percent voter approval rating, speculation about a run for president in 2016, and an almost unheard of 26-point lead over state Rep. Kurt Bills, the Republican opponent in her first re-election bid to the U.S. Senate.
Klobuchar also has developed a reputation for avoiding the big battles in Washington, removing herself from the no-compromise, rancorous partisan standoffs that have led to gridlock on the deficit and to single-digit approval ratings for Congress.
Critics say she has hoarded her political capital, fearful of stepping into controversy because it might cost her some popularity.
In a statement on Thursday, state Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said that the national debt was $8.6 trillion when Klobuchar took office and has nearly doubled since then. "What serious work has she done to 'reduce our debt in a balanced way'?" he asked, citing a line from her latest ad. "Spending, debt and joblessness have exploded on her watch. Why should we believe that a second Klobuchar term will be any better than her first?"
Klobuchar is unapologetic.
"I'm in my first term, and I'm proud of what I've done," Klobuchar said as her car pushed north toward Wadena, where she would reconnect with tornado survivors she comforted in 2010. "I've worked on things that have actually passed and gotten done, that have helped people."
Klobuchar's election brief bristles with bipartisan initiatives to advance local infrastructure projects, ease adoptions, promote tourism, lift drug shortages and protect children from dangerous toys. But she can also lay claim to being one of 14 senators who pressed for a commission to tackle the debt problem, arguably the nation's most pressing issue.
It's the leading example of how Klobuchar, 52, has tried to work the cracks in Washington's great partisan wall, even as Bills tries to tie her to partisanship's greatest failure: the "fiscal cliff" that could arrive in January if the Bush-era tax cuts expire and some $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts go into effect.
"I am basing my campaign on solving the very problem that Amy Klobuchar helped create," said Bills, a high-school economics teacher, in a statement earlier this month. Bills notes frequently that Klobuchar voted for the legislation that set the looming fiscal crisis in motion, the 2011 Budget Control Act. Klobuchar was joined in that vote not only by other Democrats, but by much of the leadership in the House and Senate.
'Not going to stop her'
Outside of the Bills campaign, the political conversation about Klobuchar has focused on her popularity. Democrats and Republicans alike wonder how a politician serves nearly six years in the poisonous atmosphere of Washington, manages to create so few enemies and encounters only token GOP opposition.
The biggest names in the Minnesota GOP constellation demurred from this year's U.S. Senate race, all but assuring Klobuchar a second term in a chamber where seniority is everything.
"When a candidate is strong, he or she invites only weak opposition," said former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. "So the result is you get these extraordinary election results, and most Republicans agree you're not going to stop her."
Republicans certainly have noticed that despite her carefully cultivated centrist image, Klobuchar votes with Democrats 94 percent of the time. She supported President Obama's controversial health care overhaul, arguing that it would help states such as Minnesota that already provide high-quality, low-cost health care. She voted for Wall Street reforms that she says will help protect consumers and community banks. She backed Obama's economic stimulus program, which pumped more than $4 billion into the state economy. And she favors a deficit-reduction strategy that combines spending cuts and tax increases for people making more than $250,000 a year.
Republicans say that is hardly a centrist voting record. But it also is a record packaged cunningly in a down-to-earth, self-effacing political persona that emphasizes practical results over ideology.
"The guy who's running against her, his base political philosophy is more in line with mine," said Twin Cities broadcasting mogul Stanley Hubbard, a prominent GOP funder who supports Klobuchar. "But she's been very helpful and straightforward with the business community."
'This is what we ask people to do'
One of Klobuchar's television ads highlights her role in helping save local automobile dealerships that were being closed as part of the Obama administration's bailout of General Motors. Bills immediately pounced, calling it "crony capitalism."
But the auto dealers, particularly Paul Walser, a Republican donor who starred in Klobuchar's ad, came to her defense.
"This is what we ask people to do in Washington," said Scott Lambert, executive vice president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association. "She did it, and she's being attacked for it."
Lambert, a former GOP congressional staffer, says Klobuchar's secret may be no more complicated than getting people to like her.
"She's got this way of disarming the crowd with a folksy story, and makes everybody feel good," Lambert said. "Then she talks politics. But you're already decided to like her, even if she says something you wouldn't ordinarily agree with."
Klobuchar's legacy as the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota carries a certain symbolic appeal, particularly among Democrats.
But if anyone has drawn blood on Klobuchar, it's Democrats, some of whom wished she would have expended some of her political capital in the hard-fought battles on gay rights and the environment.
Some gay activists in the Twin Cities have complained that she was late to support the end of the Clinton era's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, even though she also nominated the first openly gay U.S. marshal in the nation. Environmentalists were infuriated at her work to remove Minnesota wolves from the federal endangered species list, as well as her support for a new highway bridge over the St. Croix River, a project that was opposed by her political mentor, former Vice President Walter Mondale.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minneapolis DFLer who frequently finds himself in the eye of political storms, said he recognizes that Klobuchar cannot be an outspoken crusader and still get much done in the clubby atmosphere of the Senate, where she has worked with Republicans on most of her bills.
"Amy is always there for issues that matter to people," he said. "When it comes to human and civil rights, she's always there, too. It's not in the way that I'm out there, but she's accessible and she cares. People can sense that."
Former Gov. Carlson, who once dubbed Klobuchar "the great avoider," said he has seen an evolution in her public persona, as she's taken on a more visible role in championing issues such as gay marriage, voting rights and more fiscal discipline on the federal level.
"She's going to get stronger as she feels she's on firmer ground," said Carlson, who now counts himself among her admirers.
"She will be a key player for the Democrats in the years ahead."
Staff Writer Corey Mitchell contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.