STEVE INSKEEP, host:

No Democrat has made a bigger issue of that scandal than Patty Wetterling, a child-safety advocate running for an open seat in Minnesota's 6th Congressional District.

NPR's David Welna traveled there over the weekend.

DAVID WELNA: Patty Wetterling's 11-year-old son, Jacob, was abducted on his way home from school 17 years ago by a masked man and never seen again. She's since become a national crusader for protecting children from predators.

In July, Wetterling was at the White House as President Bush signed a child protection bill into law. Mark Foley, who Wetterling once considered an ally, was there too. This past weekend, Democratic leaders pointedly chose Wetterling to deliver their party's weekly radio address.

(Soundbite of Democratic Radio Address)

Ms. PATTY WETTERLING (Candidate, Minnesota's 6th Congressional District): Foley sent obvious predatory signals received loud and clear by members of the congressional leadership, who swept them under the rug to protect their political power. If a teacher did this, and the principal was told but did nothing, once the community found out, that principal would be fired.

WELNA: Wetterling was also the first congressional candidate to run a TV ad slamming Republicans for the Foley scandal.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

Unidentified Man: It shocks the conscience: Congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children. For over a year, they knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect their own power.

Professor STEVEN SMITH (Professor of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis): This was the strongest, surest move she's made in this campaign here of many, many months.

WELNA: Steven Smith, a Washington University congressional expert, lives in the socially conservative 6th District where President Bush got 57 percent of the vote two years ago. Before the Foley scandal, Smith says Wetterling had been struggling to catch up in the polls with her Republican rival, Michele Bachmann. The Christian conservative state senator is best known for her failed campaign to ban gay marriage. Smith says Wetterling, in contrast, is widely known for her passionate advocacy of child protection laws.

Mr. SMITH: She might be able to get by with somewhat more gut-level response to what we're seeing in Washington more than nearly any other candidate in the country. And Minnesotans realize this. She has this connectedness to the issue, so they'll forgive her if she overreacts a little bit. The real question is will it work to her advantage? And I think the answer is yes.

WELNA: Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey disagrees. He accuses Wetterling of jumping to conclusions.

Mr. RON CAREY (Chairman, Minnesota Republican Party): We don't want to let politics get in the way of the fact that, you know, there was a serious offense against children. And we just can't tolerate that. And we can't politicize the exploitation of children, because that is just going above and beyond what any decent person would say would be reasonable.

Unidentified Woman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this U.S. District 6th Congressional Candidate Forum.

WELNA: On Saturday, Wetterling and Republican rival Bachmann debated at the same high school in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, that Wetterling's son would have attended had he not disappeared. Their first question concerned the Foley affair. Wetterling was the first to respond.

Ms. WETTERLING: This has been my work for 17 years. I believe when that first came up that it should have been investigated fully. They wanted to protect the identity of the youth. And had they investigated properly, it could have been handled in a very protective manner. But now it's been played out before the entire nation because people had information and they chose to do nothing.

WELNA: GOP candidate Bachmann called Wetterling's TV ad on the page scandal flat-out wrong. She also defended the Republican congressional leaders whom Wetterling accused of a cover-up.

Senator MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican State Senator, Minnesota): This is a terrible thing. I'm happy that the congressman took the action that he took. And right now we know that immediately an FBI investigation was called for; that's good. We want that to happen. There is a bipartisan Ethics Committee that is doing an investigation; that's a good thing.

WELNA: Mrs. Candine(ph) of Saint Cloud, a Bachmann supporter, was scornful as she left the debate about Wetterling's new focus on the Foley scandal.

Ms. CANDINE (Supporter, Senator Michele Bachmann): I think it's ridiculous. And I think it's the luckiest thing that's ever happened to Patty. She needed something to go on because she is not very strong.

WELNA: But Wetterling's supporters say with the page scandal she's finally found her voice. And a seat Republicans seemed bound to hold onto just days ago may now be within Democrats' reach.

David Welna, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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