MINNEAPOLIS - Nearly any discussion of Minnesota's U.S. Senate race presumes Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a virtual lock for re-election, with such an advantage in money, name recognition and poll standing that some Republicans openly despair of their chances to keep her from a second term.
"I spent a lot of time last year talking a lot of my friends out of running against Klobuchar," said Mike Osskopp, Bills' campaign manager. While insisting now that she can be beat, Osskopp said he still regularly talks to Republican donors and strategists who see a Klobuchar victory as inevitable.
Osskopp and other GOP critics in Minnesota think Klobuchar is popular because she played it safe. She has avoided controversial issues and tough challenges, they argue, to instead pursue non-controversial matters of consumer affairs and child safety. "She's championed a couple consumer protection things — pool drains safety and Happy Meal toys and crap like that," Osskopp said.
But Klobuchar's allies and admirers say she has delivered real accomplishments for constituents.
"Small issues and big issues are in the eye of the beholder," said Kiki McLean, a Washington-based Democratic strategist. "What might be small to a political operative might be huge for a lot of families. That's a strength, not a weakness, and I think she gets that in a way that a lot of people don't."
In her first term, Klobuchar amassed a decent list of achievements. Besides pushing a handful of consumer protection and food safety initiatives that made it into law, Klobuchar helped get policy improvements for veterans, a crackdown on synthetic drugs and federal money for a long-sought new bridge over the St. Croix River at Stillwater.
Several of her efforts included Republican co-sponsors, a fact she trumpets on the campaign trail.
"In this day and age right now, it's very easy to be in the extremes," Klobuchar told The Associated Press. "You get attention, you go on TV shows, on the right or the left. You make a big ruckus, you raise a bunch of money, and I don't think that's what the country needs right now."
Klobuchar has the support of several Republicans in Minnesota whose business interests were wrapped up in congressional action. Several interviewed for this story said they voted against Klobuchar in 2006, but have since become enthusiastic supporters and even donors.
"I don't remember the last time I voted for a Democrat. But I will be voting for Sen. Klobuchar," said Paul Walser, CEO of Walser Automotive, which owns 15 Minnesota car dealerships. In 2008, when General Motors was near collapse and closing many U.S. dealerships, Walser said Klobuchar gave personal attention to his successful bid to preserve a location in Bloomington.
"I doubt Sen. Klobuchar and I would agree on how to balance the budget, for instance," Walser said. "I wish everyone agreed with me, but that's not real life. And we need people who want to solve problems."
When Klobuchar first ran for Senate in 2006, Republicans and Democrats assumed it would be a close race. Though the race was hard-fought, Klobuchar wound up easily beating Republican candidate Mark Kennedy by claiming 58 percent of the vote to his 39 percent. Her campaign message back then was much the same as it is now: vote for her, get a bipartisan problem-solver.
"I think if you ask Minnesotans if they feel like they got what they voted for in 2006, overwhelmingly the answer would be yes," said Ben Goldfarb, who managed Klobuchar's campaign that year and is still an occasional adviser. "She delivered what she said she would, and people are going to respond to that."
Bill Hawkins, the former CEO of Medtronic, said he donated money to Kennedy in 2006 but will vote for Klobuchar this year. He was won over by her work to reduce a tax on medical devices that was part of President Obama's health-care bill.
"My friends who are in banking, many CEOs in Minneapolis have similar stories about how she has been personally so engaged and helpful," Hawkins said. While most politicians he's dealt with communicate largely through deputies and assistants, Hawkins said, "She's at the front door."
Klobuchar has amassed a huge campaign fund, with more than a few contributions from many traditional Republican donors. Hawkins, for example, gave her $3,400 in 2010 and 2011, while Walser donated $2,400 in 2010. At the end of the last federal reporting period in July, Klobuchar had more than $5 million on hand while Bills had only about $5,000.
Bills, a first-term state representative and high school economics teacher, isn't conceding anything. He has tried to play up the underdog angle, even comparing his situation to that of the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, who rose from obscurity in 1990 to beat a much better-known and moneyed incumbent. (Democrats have pointed out his libertarian beliefs don't look anything like Wellstone's liberalism.)
Bills has proposed deep cuts to federal spending. He says his main goal as senator would be bringing down the national debt to avoid leaving a burden on future generations of Americans.
If Klobuchar does win in November, she'll be the first Minnesotan to embark on a second U.S. Senate term since Wellstone was re-elected in 1996. Klobuchar long ago appeared ready for a lengthy stay in Washington: she has moved her family there, with her daughter enrolled in school and her husband teaching law in the area. But the family still owns their longtime home in Minneapolis and spends time there as well, particularly during the summer.
"I love being in the Senate. I think we haven't had a lot of consistency there," Klobuchar said. "I think being able to have some consistency at a time of a lot of turmoil, that's what I plan to do."
A second term would begin pushing Klobuchar up the seniority list, a critical element for influence in the chamber.
As one of a relatively few high-profile female politicians from the Midwest, Klobuchar's name has come up as a potential prospect on future national tickets. She brushed off that speculation, but McLean, the Democratic strategist, said she expects that talk to heighten after the 2012 election, when pundits start brushing up lists of Democratic up-and-comers.
"It's early in her career and it's hard to pigeonhole her yet," McLean said. "But I think Democrats are looking at her and seeing someone they know is significant. That she's someone we're going to be hearing more from."