The contest to replace retiring U.S. Rep. John Kline is intensifying as Republican candidates struggle to break out from the crowded field.

Conservative talk radio host Jason Lewis is drawing criticism for comments about women and slavery while Democrats are bashing Darlene Miller, also a Republican, for leading a company that benefited from the federal stimulus program denounced by some of her party’s leaders.

The campaign is unfolding in a rapidly evolving Second Congressional District that Democrats believe they can finally win in November after Kline, a Republican, locked down the seat for 14 years.

As Republicans try to showcase their conservative credentials, Kline warned against alienating general election voters.

“This district is not a right district,” he said this week. “It’s a swing district.”

The race is becoming one of the most-watched in the country, with national congressional campaign committees for both parties preparing to pour money and resources into it.

Lewis appears to lead the GOP pack in name recognition, but others in his party are scrambling to distinguish themselves and raise money. Other Republican candidates are David Gerson, who lost to Kline before; former state Sen. John Howe; former state Rep. Pam Myhra, and David Benson-Staebler.

In Lewis’ audio book “Power Divided Is Power Checked: The Argument for States’ Rights,” he questioned the ways the federal government tried to end slavery. On his former talk show, Lewis criticized young, single women for being ignorant of important issues and choosing candidates based on who would pay for birth control.

“Getting me to pay for her pills?” he asked in 2012. “Seriously?! Is that what we’ve been reduced to? You can be bought off for that?”

Democratic candidate Angie Craig seized on the comments in an e-mail seeking donations from supporters this week. The message included a video clip of Lewis’ recent interview on KSTP, in which he was asked if he meant what he said or was trying to be a provocative talk show host.

Lewis laughed before answering, “The positions I took on the issues then and the positions I take now, I believe in.”

Craig’s message to contributors said: “Make sure Angie has the resources she needs to stand up to these right-wing extremists and win.”

“Join us now in sending him a message that this is no laughing matter.”

The Democratic field has quickly narrowed to just Craig, an executive at St. Jude Medical who has been relentlessly fundraising since she announced her candidacy last April.

Lewis’ writings and comments on women voters and slavery were first unearthed by Star Tribune blogger Michael Brodkorb.

Minnesota GOP officials criticized some of Lewis’ previous statements. Chris Fields, deputy chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, told Brodkorb that Lewis’ comments “are contradictory to the values Republicans share and principles the party was founded upon.”

Kline’s takes

Kline worked hard to recruit Mary Pawlenty to run for the seat. But the former judge and former Minnesota first lady said in September that she wouldn’t be a candidate.

“You’re going to have to appeal to a broad range of voters,” said Kline, noting that he has drawn votes from people who supported candidates as ideologically diverse as Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “You can’t carry this on Republicans or Democrats alone.”

More recently, Kline and other influential Republicans have spoken favorably of Miller, a business leader who has come out strongly against Obamacare, taxes and what she calls government overregulation. Miller is a political newcomer who has been critical of those she deems career politicians as she tries to tap anti-Washington sentiment in her district.

The Minnesota DFL and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have zeroed in on Miller for accepting federal stimulus money for her business when the nation was in the grips of the Great Recession.

She is CEO and president of Permac Industries, a Burnsville precision parts manufacturing company that received federal stimulus funds under President Obama and took advantage of tax incentives under President George W. Bush.

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, who had criticized the stimulus program following the financial crisis, highlighted Permac as a success story at a campaign stop there during his 2010 run for governor. But Miller’s use of stimulus money was a surprise to Emmer’s campaign as he tried to roll out his jobs proposal.

Miller’s campaign manager, George Damian, said this week that Miller didn’t know at the time that the program she entered into at a Dakota County workforce center was funded with stimulus money. The program paid part of the salaries for two entry-level employees, he said.

Double-edged sword

Damian views the attacks as good news, in a way.

“The Democrats are against Darlene: She’s the biggest threat to win this district in November and that’s why they’re coming after her now,” Damian said.

Kline agreed, saying that if Democrats were “attacking Darlene Miller, it sends a signal that they think that’s an opponent that they need to beat down early.”

The congressman has stopped short of outright backing any of the candidates, though he was most supportive of Miller.

He said he was disappointed that the GOP field hadn’t done enough fundraising, and that they needed to show they could bring in enough campaign contributions to win.

Asked how other GOP candidates would compete with Lewis’ name recognition, Kline offered a one-word answer: “Money.”

“It’s a matter of getting your name out there and in as many media as you can,” he said.