ST. CLOUD - As a crisp breeze descended on Apollo High School Wednesday night, state Sen. Tarryl Clark walked beside the football field, meeting fans lined up for the annual showdown between two rivals.
St. Cloud Tech left hours later with yet another in a string of victories over Apollo -- hardly the underdog story Clark is gunning for in her race to unseat Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann.
The two women have outspent every U.S. House race in the country to woo voters in the Sixth Congressional District. In her two terms, Bachmann has transformed herself from an insurgent state senator into a conservative firebrand with a national reputation and a fearsome campaign war chest. Clark, a mainstream Democrat, must try to peel off independent voters while combating what appears to be growing Republican momentum nationwide.
"Michele really speaks the way I like somebody in politics to speak," said Mary Bzdok, a mother of 10 children having a document notarized at a law firm in St. Cloud. "She sticks to a point."
Others are less enthralled with Bachmann's blunt, combative style of politics. Throwing a tennis ball to a yellow Labrador outside her house in Woodbury, Victoria O'Hare says Bachmann's comments "drive me crazy."
A Clark supporter, O'Hare said that "I believe pretty strongly that [Tarryl] will reverse the negativity that Michele Bachmann has brought to this state."
The Sixth District, which spans from St. Cloud to Anoka and Woodbury, has consistently voted Republican, although Bachmann's support fell below 50 percent in 2008. Her last Democratic challenger, former state Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg, lost by three points. Unknown independent candidate Bob Anderson grabbed 10 percent of the vote. Anderson, a dentist, is running the same low-key, low-budget campaign this year.
Small towns and rural areas across the district have proven a stronghold for Bachmann in past elections.
That puts population centers like Blaine squarely in the cross hairs. With a slight Democratic tilt in the last election, Blaine is a working-class suburb flush with independents -- one of a cluster of towns in Anoka County that helped propel long-shot gubernatorial candidate Jesse Ventura to victory in 1998. Clark's campaign says the county is central to its victory strategy. Tinklenberg lost Anoka County by 5 percentage points.
"We want to be everywhere, all the time," said canvasser Ashleigh Leitch, rapping on a door in Blaine while armed with an iPhone that helped her suss out independent voters. She tailors her speech to voters' interests, commenting to one elderly woman, "You can't have a conversation with a mailer or with an ad on TV."
Clark said the direct voter contact is "a big part of what we're doing that's different."
Standing in the night chill of the football stadium's parking lot, Clark said of voters: "We're finding them. We're going back and talking to them, making sure we're listening to them."
Bachmann on Friday said she is "really optimistic" about the election and unperturbed by Clark's efforts to make inroads in Anoka. "My mother still lives in Anoka with my stepdad. I graduated from Anoka High School. So that's my backyard," Bachmann said.
The most common complaint in Bachmann's backyard? Too many negative ads -- from both candidates.
"Why don't they talk about what they're going to do and not slam each other?" asked Jim Sweno, standing on his porch in Blaine. "It's disgusting."
Heavy infusions of national cash have made this the costliest U.S. House race in the country, more than every other House race in Minnesota combined. Bachmann and Clark have inundated the airwaves with ads and swamped voters' mailboxes with literature.
$2 million in two weeks
Bachmann's spending has increased exponentially in the last days of the race. On Friday, her campaign reported spending more than $2 million in just two weeks. That's more than most House candidates spend in an entire election.
St. John's University political scientist Kay Wolsborn said Bachmann's enormous resources and strong Republican get-out-the-vote operations give her an advantage heading into Election Day. "She's a hard one to beat," Wolsborn said, while noting that Clark's strong presence in the district and political experience could help her surpass previous challengers.
Bachmann has focused her attacks on Clark's fiscal record in the Legislature, particularly a "signature" vote this spring to raise income taxes as a way to balance the state's budget. Her latest ad portrays Clark carved in stone on "Mt. Spendmore," nestled among the likenesses of President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"I think she thinks she's running against Nancy Pelosi or the president or Harry Reid or something," said Clark, who was once a spokeswoman for the Senate DFL caucus. Bachmann argues that her message focuses on those lawmakers because she believes Clark would vote in line with Pelosi if she reached Washington. "It's important that the people of this district know that there is a very clear choice between the two candidates," Bachmann said.
For her part, Clark jabs frequently at Bachmann's national campaign appearances and lack of attention to her own district. She also has hit Bachmann for wanting to alter Social Security and challenged her to cut her office budget.
After lobbing grenades at each other for months, Bachmann, Clark and Anderson are slated to appear in the first of three debates on Tuesday.
Bachmann proved that a lot can change in the final weeks of the campaign when her "anti-American" comment in mid-October of 2008 garnered national attention and injected Tinklenberg's campaign with a torrent of last-minute cash.
Tinklenberg campaign manager John Wodele said their internal polling showed them ahead by about 3 points until the last week of the race. "She really moved those polls in the last week."
In Lake Elmo, voters like Roger Schrade say Democrats only want to defeat Bachmann "because she's standing up and saying, 'Hey, time out, we can't spend money we don't have.'"
Schrade's lawn features a 6-foot-long Bachmann sign, which replaced a smaller one they were planning to give him. "I said, the bigger the better."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732