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Continued: In uphill battle for Senate seat, Bills is driven to 'stop the debt'

ROCHESTER -- With only a campaign button to mark his mission, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills stepped out of an unmarked silver Jeep Patriot and hoisted a stack of pamphlets, readying himself for a task few statewide candidates ever tackle: knocking on doors one-by-one in a last-ditch attempt to connect with voters.

Bills has little choice. Three weeks out from Election Day, he has little money, no television ads and only a few campaign workers -- he shares his spokesman with a long-shot congressional candidate. The Rosemount legislator has slim name recognition statewide and his own national party -- even though it is battling for control of the U.S. Senate -- has virtually ignored his race.

On this warm fall day, Bills' only companion was Republican state Rep. Mike Benson, in whose car Bills rode and in whose neighborhood Bills was door-knocking. Bills had asked two days earlier to join Benson. The two split up, each taking one side of the street.

At one door, Bills started out by mentioning his opponent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

"She's very well known. I'm not," he said.

Another door: "She has a lot of money. I don't so much."

Seeing Bills on her doorstep, homeowner Sharon Tuntland, a Republican, offered this assessment: "You're a brave person to take on Amy."

A teacher and first-term House lawmaker, Bills is here in part because every big-name Republican declined to run against Klobuchar, whose careful politics and high approval ratings in a state where President Obama leads have given her an unusually large political cushion.

His efforts have been hampered by his other duties. In a race that typically demands every minute of a candidate's time and then some, Bills still starts his days teaching his first-period high school economics class. Before setting out on a day of campaigning recently, he spent several hours in parent-teacher conferences.

"At this point, he hasn't been able to rise above the clutter," said Cullen Sheehan, who ran Republican Norm Coleman's 2008 U.S. Senate race.

The seat "is certainly not on any Republican watch list and it's not on any Democratic worry list," said Jessica Taylor, senior analyst at the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan political handicapper.

His supporters say the struggle has been profound.

"It's frustrating to be working so hard, and watching him work so hard, and yet have a hard time getting traction. I believe the message is something that would resonate with Minnesotans -- if only they could hear it," said Pat Barnum, a Bills volunteer and a suburban school board member. A longtime devotee of libertarian firebrand Ron Paul, Barnum says she sees echoes of Paul's limited government mantra in Bills.

Bills says that from the start, his message to Minnesotans has been simple and plays off his teaching experience: "Let's bring Econ101 to Washington."

Bills promotes a flat tax, which would charge everyone the same tax rate, with few exceptions. He backs a plan issued by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would shut down the federal departments of Commerce, Education, Housing and Urban Development and Energy. The Transportation Security Administation would be privatized and the retirement age gradually raised to 70.

"I'm on a mission to stop the debt," Bills said at one summer debate with Klobuchar. "We can't pay for everything."

Bills has railed against Klobuchar for her votes on budget bills, particularly the 2011 Budget Control Act, a compromise among Republicans and Democrats that set in motion the "fiscal cliff" the country now faces.

As a candidate, Bills' campaign has been a study in contrasts. He backs Rand Paul's uncompromising vision for a stripped-down government but says he also seeks "great compromise" and at one appearance said he would vote for a compromise on the budget even if it meant "a verbal or physical confrontation with Grover Norquist," a national antitax figure.

He frequently touts his union membership on the campaign trail, but also has supported "right-to-work" legislation that unions consider anathema, and counts Bob and Joan Cummins, millionaire Minnesota backers of anti-union legislation, among his biggest donors.

In person he can be genial and warm, but his campaign has put out unusually personal attacks, calling Klobuchar, at various points, "Daddy's little girl" and "prom queen." Bills later said his campaign should have been "more respectful" but did not apologize for the remarks sent out in his name.

Bills has taken particular umbrage at the media, which he says have failed to vigorously vet Klobuchar. "Pathetic. Just Pathetic," he titled one missive about coverage. "Snark, Not Issues," said another. He refused Star Tribune requests for an interview for this article and no longer gives much detail about his campaign schedule. A press release issued Friday indicated that Bills would visit eight counties over the weekend, with no details beyond the names of the cities and times.

Deep-voiced but soft-spoken, Bills towers at 6 feet 3, with a thick neck and firm stride that speaks of a lifetime of physical activity, from building an addition onto his Rosemount home to coaching the high school wrestling team. The father of four, he and his wife run a day-care center out of their home. He lights up when in the presence of kids, pets and his high school students.

Bills started in politics as a Rosemount City Council member, where he served two years. In 2010 he was swept in with a massive Republican freshman class at the State Capitol, where his small-government philosophy and sharp fiscal views blended with the new GOP might. Colleagues say he showed leadership away from the public glare.

"It doesn't show up in legislation, and you don't see a bill passed or a law passed, how effective he was at educating other members," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Farmington Republican who recruited Bills to run for the Legislature in 2010. Bills' best known proposal was to make gold and silver legal tender in Minnesota. The measure never got a vote.

"When he told me he was running I [asked] him: Why are you wasting your time doing that? You got to do something first ... to run for the United States Senate," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.

Asked if he imagined Bills running for higher office when he was on the City Council, longtime Rosemount Mayor Bill Droste said "absolutely not." Droste said he remains uncommitted in the Senate race.

Less than a year and a half into his House term, Bills announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate, backed by a growing cadre of Ron Paul supporters within the state party's delegate ranks. He pledged he would support the Texas libertarian's longshot presidential bid until Paul himself ended it. Bills easily defeated GOP rival Pete Hegseth, a war veteran in his first run at elective office, and Dan Severson, a former state lawmaker who narrowly lost the secretary of state race in 2010.

But within months, when Paul was still nipping at the heels of presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, Bills abruptly announced his support of Romney, triggering disappointment among Paul supporters.

"There was a little rumbling," said Marianne Stebbins, who organized Minnesota's massive Paul delegation to the Republican National Convention in Florida. Bills skipped the convention in favor of campaigning at the State Fair.

In a cramped room of Rochester's Republican campaign office, Bills addressed the question that has dogged his longshot campaign: Can you win?

"I was a head wrestling coach for seven years at Rosemount High School and we were right next to a little high school called Apple Valley," Bills told the dozen Republicans and a smattering of reporters. "They have a wrestling team there that's one of the tops in the nation. But you never quit."

The Apple Valley powerhouse still bested Rosemount, he said.

"But we never gave up," he said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb

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