- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

The battle for Minnesota’s open U.S. Senate seat is turning into one of the closer races of the 2006 election season in a state once ruled by Democrats but trending Republican in recent years.

Even Minnesota’s Democratic state chairman, Brian Melendez, told The Washington Times that “this state is about evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. It has become more conservative-leaning in recent years. It’s not a state that either party can take for granted.”

A little more than three months before Election Day, independent voter polls show Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy trailing Democratic Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar by five percentage points in a contest for the seat held by retiring Sen. Mark Dayton, a Democrat. Mr. Kennedy calls Mr. Dayton “a fringe liberal who got nothing done and wasted the Senate seat for six years.”

A SurveyUSA election poll of 700 Minnesotans showed Ms. Klobuchar leading Mr. Kennedy 47 percent to 42 percent. Independence Party candidate Robert Fitzgerald, who could be the spoiler in the race, drew 8 percent. The poll, conducted last week for several statewide television stations, has a margin of error of four percentage points.

Earlier this month, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published its Minnesota Poll showing Ms. Klobuchar with a 19-point lead. The Kennedy campaign said the poll has a notorious history of being “skewed against Republicans.”

Mr. Kennedy, who is in his third term in the House, is attacking Ms. Klobuchar as someone far to the left of Minnesota’s political mainstream.

He said he will be an independent voice in the Senate, citing his vote against President Bush’s proposal to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and his opposition to the president’s No Child Left Behind education act.

Mr. Melendez, however, said he has seen “no poll where Amy Klobuchar is running behind. She holds a decisive lead. I don’t think the race will be very tight at all.”

If Ms. Klobuchar, chief prosecutor in the state’s most-populated county, has a campaign strategy, it is to make Mr. Bush the major issue in the campaign and to stress her opposition to the war in Iraq.

A big factor in the election’s outcome will be the Republican Party’s ascendency in the state, holding four of the top five state offices, including popular Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He will be at the top of the ticket in November, helping candidates such as Mr. Kennedy, Republican officials said.

If the national political climate is as pessimistic as polls suggest, Minnesota is one of the bright spots. Mr. Pawlenty turned a $4.5 billion deficit into a $1 billion surplus without raising taxes. Unemployment is low and 54 percent of voters say the state is moving in the right direction, according to the Star Tribune poll.

Still, Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey remains cautious because both candidates are not widely known. “This is going to be a 51-to-49 percent race. It’s a purple state right now and very tight.”

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