The expensive congressional race between Republican Michele Bachmann and DFL challenger Tarryl Clark is attracting national attention, but the deciding factor might be a man who makes teeth in Edina.

When he's not forging teeth in his basement office, dental technician Bob Anderson is the third candidate in a contest featuring two fundraising heavyweights. He has almost no money or paid staff, but does have a reputation for damaging more prominent candidates in the Sixth Congressional District, which includes northern and western Twin Cities suburbs.

When he ran there in 2008, Anderson got 40,000 votes -- 10 percent of all ballots cast. Bachmann won by 3 percent, and backers of her DFL opponent believe Anderson drew critical votes from their candidate.

The Sixth District has a distinct taste for third-party politics -- Jesse Ventura proved wildly popular here -- but its voters have never come close to sending a third-party candidate to Congress. Nonetheless, Anderson's endorsement by the Independence Party and his common Minnesota name could make him a threat in a district where many unaffiliated voters are known to seek alternatives to the two biggest parties.

The Woodbury resident, who spent just $800 on his last campaign, does not see himself as a spoiler -- despite frequent criticism from Democrats that he is diluting the anti-Bachmann voting bloc.

"To people that tell me, 'Aren't you worried about taking votes from Bachmann? Aren't you worried about taking votes from Tarryl Clark?' I say 'No, I don't worry about taking votes from either one because I'm not happy with either of those parties," Anderson said during a recent interview in his Edina office.

Lessons learned

None of this has gone unnoticed by Clark's campaign, which says it is taking pains to avoid a repeat of 2008 by raising money early and running a significant ground game to get Clark's message out.

"We are aggressively going after his voters," said Clark campaign manager Zach Rodvold, who takes solace in the fact that more people in 2008 "voted for somebody other than Michele Bachmann than voted for Michele Bachmann."

Anderson contends, however, that Bachmann would have taken only a wider margin of victory had he stayed out of the race. The Sixth leans decidedly Republican. In 2008, John McCain beat Barack Obama in the Sixth 53 to 45 percent. In 2004, Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy beat DFL challenger Patty Wetterling 54 to 46 percent.

Bachmann campaign spokesman Sergio Gor said he did not want to speculate on where the votes would have gone, and he noted the campaign's priority is to capture "every single voter."

In 2008, DFL challenger Elwyn Tinklenberg touted his centrist credentials and endorsements from both the IP and DFL parties to win over the unaffiliated voters in the Sixth. His campaign struggled to raise funds early but got a last-minute boost when Bachmann claimed Obama might hold "un-American views." Tinklenberg ultimately lost by about 12,000 votes.

"The great frustration there was we should have won that race based on the independent vote, and we ended up losing it based on the independent vote," said former Tinklenberg adviser John Wodele, who believes a major Bachmann ad offensive cost them precious votes late in the campaign.

Even though Tinklenberg had the Independence Party endorsement, Anderson undermined that by running as an Independence Party candidate.

"If Bob had not jumped in, I think there's a very strong likelihood we would have won the race," remarked Tinklenberg, noting that Anderson's votes "were not going to go to Michele Bachmann."

Anderson sees things much differently.

"I think [Tinklenberg's] fatal flaw was having a 'D' next to his name," Anderson said with a laugh.

This year, Clark brings to the table her DFL voting record from her time as a state senator, which could prove an obstacle to winning over the unaffiliated voting bloc.

'Right-leaning' independent

Anderson says he would have stayed out of the race this year had physician Maureen Reed run as the independent candidate. Reed instead chose to run as a DFLer, though she later dropped out.

He describes himself as a "right-leaning" independent, and his policy views largely align with the Republican Party.

Anderson says he would have voted against the recently passed health care bill, the bailouts of the financial sector, cap-and-trade legislation and the stimulus. He views the multimillion dollar spending from both of his opponents as fiscally irresponsible.

Though he acknowledges that some voters may have chosen him as a protest vote in 2008, he feels those same people would never vote for a Democrat.

He relates Clark to Barbra Streisand's singing at a Ted Nugent concert -- she is talented but in the wrong venue.

"So I see myself as an alternative to Congresswoman Bachmann," Anderson said. "I don't see Tarryl Clark fitting this district."

Once the host of a local cable access show called "Inside Mental Health Issues," Anderson decided to enter politics after enduring a bout with depression several years ago. He and his wife have since divorced, and he transferred ownership of the dental lab to his brother, Al.

"He doesn't just make promises," Al Anderson said as drill bits screeched in the background. "He makes teeth, too!"

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732