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Continued: DFL veers to center as it targets Kline

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 21, 2012 - 9:49 PM

The DFL has a new playbook in its quest to unseat Second District Congressman John Kline.

Eagan attorney Mike Obermueller isn't repeating any of the main elements of the party's recent attempts to wrest from Republicans the district representing south metro suburbs and exurbs.

He's stressing bipartisanship and even sounding a bit Republican, with an emphasis on things like cutting the deficit through attacks on wasteful spending.

"Both parties have failed to come to grips with the debt and deficit," he said. "We've got to fix it."

The Kline camp isn't buying Obermueller's claim to be a moderate in line with the district's voters.

"Mr. Obermueller might choose to talk like a Republican," said spokesman Troy Young, "but his record as a legislator clearly shows he is a tax-and-spend, big government proponent who calls Obamacare a 'good start' and continues to advocate for an even more radical government takeover of health care."

It's not clear yet how competitive the race is likely to be -- or whether Obermueller's is instead a longer-term game plan aimed at chipping away at Kline over two or three election cycles, or even anticipating the retirement of a 64-year-old incumbent.

Obermueller boasts of raising far more money than recent challengers have managed. But it's a lot less than Kline has raised, and the top handicapping services in Washington are not treating the race as a particularly threatening one for the GOP.

With ties to House Speaker John Boehner, Kline has moved swiftly into a leadership position in Congress: He now chairs the House Education Committee.

But Obermueller is at least trying a jujitsu move in which that strength becomes a liability: in which being a congressional insider might make him a bigger target.

"He is part of a broken system," the DFLer said. "We have to find solutions, not sit on the sidelines as these guys try and destroy each other."

Kline's fundraising haul stems in part, the challenger said, from the congressman's insider clout.

"The whole for-profit college industry is among the top donors to his campaign," Obermueller said. "These people have an interest in what Kline's committee does. It shows what happens when there's not strong ethics reform. Well over $300,000 in for-profit college dollars have come into his campaign, and he has sponsored legislation that benefits them. That's a problem for me."

Although there seems no dispute that education interests are important donors, Kline's campaign declined to be drawn on that assertion, or on other specific complaints about his record. In most years, that's been his posture early on, with debates in the autumn being the main forum for public disagreement.

Over the past three election cycles, DFL opponents have tried without success a series of strategems:

They've accused him of a way-right-of-the-district ultra-conservatism that flies smoothly below the radar -- akin to being a Michele Bachmann without the headlines.

They've charged that the retired Marine Corps officer isn't sound on issues of concern to veterans.

They've stressed his pioneering stance against earmarks, saying he isn't bringing home the bacon despite representing a fast-growing district with infrastructure needs.

Those pitches bumped up against problems of both perception and reality.

Money has rolled in

While Kline may not always have been directly responsible, for instance, huge quantities of federal transportation dollars have flowed into the district, adding and improving highways and making Dakota County one of the premier national proving grounds for rapid busways as a cheaper alternative to light rail.

In a nearly hour-long interview last week, Obermueller didn't bring up any of those charges. Perhaps the closest he came was to tie Kline to the efforts of House Republicans, notably Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, to reboot the Medicare program -- or, as Democrats prefer to put it, to "end Medicare as we know it."

Asked about recent polls showing that even many Republicans favor tax-the-rich plans, Obermueller listened but declined to take the bait, no doubt aware that the Second is an affluent district.

He described himself as the sort of Democrat who can win in the Second: "The first Democrat elected to the Legislature from [former] Gov. [Tim] Pawlenty's old seat since Eagan was cornfields." His loss of that seat after a single term, he said, was the result of a historic Republican tornado that swept many others like him out of office.

He's casting himself as a typical Minnesotan, starting off on a farm and working his way through law school.

"I milked cows before school started and did my chores before playing with friends," he said. "I was the second-oldest of six adopted kids, and I celebrate my adoption anniversary more than my birthday out of gratitude for what my parents did for me."

There's more on both men at their websites: www.mikeober mueller.com and www.kline forcongress.com. Each brings up standard issues for each man's party, including women's rights for Obermueller and gun rights for Kline.

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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