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More than a year after winning Iowa's straw poll for the GOP presidential nomination, and 10 months after dropping out of that race, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is campaigning again. This time, she's after a fourth term representing Minnesota's 6th Congressional District, and once again, Bachmann's campaign is running into stiff competition. NPR's David Welna reports on what has turned into an unexpectedly close contest.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Congresswoman Michele Bachmann may be best known for her stridently conservative worldview and controversial remarks, but also her ability to raise huge amounts of money by congressional standards. According to Bachmann's campaign, in the past three months, $4.5 million flowed into her re-election bid. On her campaign website, Bachmann pleads for more money and says Democratic campaign committees have her in their sights.
REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: Now perhaps you don't know this, but the DNC and the DCCC have specifically targeted me for defeat from the United States Congress.
WELNA: Bachmann's district is indeed among those the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting in its Red to Blue campaign. St. Cloud State University political scientist Stephen Frank says that might seem surprising since redistricting this year added more conservative voters to what had already been a fairly conservative 6th District. And Bachmann, he says, easily won the last three times she ran there.
DR. STEPHEN FRANK: She's a good candidate. She's very strong. She raises money early and often. She appeals to constituents. She's a very formidable opponent. But I don't think she's had very good opponents in the past.
WELNA: This time, though, Bachmann faces a Democratic opponent unlike any she's had before.
JIM GRAVES: I'm Jim Graves. I grew up actually about five blocks from here. I know this area well. I have a brother and a sister that graduated from school here.
WELNA: At a candidates' forum this week at a St. Cloud community college, Bachmann challenger Jim Graves tells the crowd of students his success as founder of the American motel chain has made him a very wealthy man. He is from the world of business, he adds, where nobody cares whether you're a Democrat or a Republican.
GRAVES: I may be in the 1 percent club, but it doesn't make any difference. We all are in this together. And the problem in America right now is we're way too polarized. I'm a bipartisan fella.
WELNA: Michele Bachmann was a no-show at the candidates' forum. That disappointed first-time voter Bailey Eilers(ph).
BAILEY EILERS: It would've been nice to hear everyone's point of view for people who listen like me who don't really like her, but I'm not strong one way or another. So she could've changed my mind if I would've seen her in person.
WELNA: Later, Bachmann campaign manager Chase Kroll says voters can compare the two contenders in three debates scheduled for the final days of the campaign.
CHASE KROLL: The Graves' campaign has been saying they want to be able to draw a clear contrast. I don't think there's any more need of a contrast.
WELNA: For now, Bachmann is going after Graves mainly on the airwaves. She's running ads like this one that might make you think it's Graves, not Bachmann, who's seeking re-election.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And Graves even backs Obamacare's trillion dollars in new taxes and spending, sticking Minnesota families with the bill. We can't afford big spending Jim in Congress.
GARRISON KEILLOR: Thank you, Dara(ph).
DARA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
KEILLOR: Watch your step, Dara.
DARA: Sorry, (unintelligible) I'm so sorry. Thank you.
WELNA: Garrison Keillor, host of the popular radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," sees off a couple attending a Graves fundraiser at his St. Paul home. Keillor grew up in Bachmann's district. He's confident Graves is the man to replace her.
KEILLOR: I think that Jim is making a good case that she's been doing her own business for two years, at least. And maybe she ought not to do that on the public payroll.
WELNA: Back in St. Cloud, resentment lingers over Bachmann's quest for the presidency. Kevin Solie(ph) is an independent who supports her.
KEVIN SOLIE: She probably could have paid more attention to the home front. But she does a lot of good work with veterans here in the state. So that's a good thing.
WELNA: Could Bachmann actually lose? Campaign manager Chase Kroll doesn't think so.
KROLL: It's a competitive district and it's a, you know, a somewhat close race. I think we're going to win, but we're not taking anything for granted.
WELNA: In the latest poll from August, Graves trails Bachmann by just two percentage points. Still, St. Cloud State's Frank says the race remains Bachmann's to lose.
FRANK: But I think it is going to be much more in play, and I do think he is probably the best candidate she's ever faced.
WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, St. Paul, Minnesota.
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