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The business leaders gathered at a golf club in Ham Lake seemed a perfect audience for a conservative Republican seeking reelection and respite from two weeks of turmoil.
Then came the stories. A sod farmer, a caterer, an electrical contractor and others told Rep. Michele Bachmann that business was down.
"I'm a frustrated Republican," said Bill Nelson, 72, who works in real estate. "My own kids won't vote Republican this year. We're not seeing the leadership in Washington." The scene played out as Bachmann and Democrat Elwyn Tinklenberg hustled for votes late this week in Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District, a once reliably Republican area shaken up by economic woes and controversial remarks by the incumbent.
The race, which has gained national attention, is now considered a tossup, and both sides were reinforcing their ground campaign this weekend with more TV ads financed by a flood of money from partisans around the country.
In a series of stops, Bachmann moved to shift the conversation away from her televised comment that Barack Obama may have anti-American views and onto safer topics such as her call for cutting taxes. She found some support.
At the Ham Lake City Hall, she asked Council Member Julie Braastad, "What are you hearing from residents?" Braastad, 46, replied, "Don't raise taxes."
But Tinklenberg did his best in a debate and campaign stops to keep the controversy alive. He didn't have to try hard.
"El, Michele Bachmann is making your life easy for you," Barbara Schweiger, 61, told him as he stopped at her table in a bar in Anoka.
Tagging along with both candidates were reporters from the BBC, drawn by the flap over Bachmann's comments and viewing the close contest as symptomatic of Republican troubles in 2008.
On the trail, Bachmann delivers a simple message: She's against abortion, against raising taxes on anyone, and against the $700 billion financial Wall Street rescue package.
Tinklenberg's message is more nuanced. He supports abortion rights. He favors tax cuts for the middle class but is open to raising taxes on the wealthy. He saw the Wall Street rescue package as a necessary evil to avert a worse crisis.
He reminded voters that as state transportation commissioner he pushed for a commuter rail system that is about to open in the district, where increased population has led to traffic snarls.
Bachmann on the road
She repeated her call to open restricted areas for more oil drilling to bring down gas prices, and suggested that she had something to do with the recent price decline, which economists attribute to slackened demand.
"That was one of my goals, to see us get back to $2 a gallon, and we're almost there," she told sod farmer John Hogdal, 58, who has been hurt by high prices for oil-based fertilizer.
"I love Sarah Palin for drill and drill everywhere," he replied.
Bachmann's comments about Obama and Congress have sparked angry e-mails and calls to her campaign, but the owner of an engineering firm told her, "I admire your being able to stand up to the majority" in the U.S. House.
Touring small businesses, Bachmann chatted with people sanding, drilling and soldering metal at one firm, telling one worker she used to solder things when she was young on a relative's farm. She asked another if he liked working a 10-hour shift four days a week.
"Love them," he said.
In swings through Andover and Anoka, Tinklenberg reached out to voters upset with the economy and Bachmann.
At a coffee shop in Andover, Luke McLain, 33, told Tinklenberg he'd vote for him. McLain called himself "conservative overall, but not extreme." He said he had voted for Bachmann in 2006 but he was bothered by her remark that Obama "may have anti-American views" and her stance on social issues.
At another coffee shop, Daniel Stein, 43, told Tinklenberg he has multiple sclerosis and complained about high drug prices. Tinklenberg said he favored lifting a ban on the government negotiating drug prices for the disabled and elderly.
At Serum's bar in Anoka, Barabara Schweiger said Bachmann "should keep her mouth shut." But she also voiced more substantive reasons for why she plans to vote for Tinklenberg. She and her husband, Richard, worry about the drop in their 401(k) balance, blame Republicans for the economic downturn and have lost interest in privatizing a small portion of Social Security, a move advanced by the GOP. "I did vote for Pawlenty and Norm Coleman ... but I'm really tired of the Republicans."
In her public appearances, Bachmann has cast herself as a tax hawk and opponent of Bush policy, citing her vote against the financial rescue package. "I'm a principled conservative and I stay true to my values and my beliefs," she said during a debate on Minnesota Public Radio.
Tinklenberg argued that the financial crisis "has an impact on Main Street ... on folks in the district" and that rejecting the bailout would have left ordinary people without credit.
Bachmann also said that the flap over her remarks "isn't what people have been asking me about." They're more concerned, she said, about the bailout and the prospect of higher taxes.
"The idea that this is not an issue in the campaign is plain not credible," Tinklenberg said. "It's what's given this campaign a national interest."
Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210