WEST ST. PAUL, Minn. — Republican John Kline hasn't had a tough election in a while. He's campaigning harder now that a new political map took away some of his most reliable supporters and added several Democratic-leaning areas to his southern suburban Twin Cities district.
Kline, the 65-year-old House Education Committee chairman, is seen in political circles as a potential contender for Senate or governor in 2014.
But first he faces Democrat Mike Obermueller, a 39-year-old attorney and former state lawmaker who says Kline's support of a Republican plan to overhaul Medicare is out of step with Minnesota's reshaped 2nd District. Both candidates are expected to start airing TV ads Tuesday as the race shifts into the final weeks with extra attention paid to the new parts of the district, including West St. Paul, South St. Paul, Mendota Heights and Wabasha. Those blue-tinged communities replaced solidly red areas such as Carver and Chanhassen.
The retired Marine colonel said he is running "flat out" for a sixth term. But he's also traveling outside Minnesota to campaign for fellow Republican candidates as part of his leadership responsibility for the House GOP caucus. Kline said the time away won't shake his focus from his own campaign.
"We're not leaving anything untouched," he said in an AP interview. "I'm working on the ground. We're raising money. We've got a plan to reach out."
Obermueller, who represented Eagan in the state House for two years, is appealing to voters' frustration with an unpopular Congress as he tries to make a name throughout a district that stretches south into farm country and small towns including Northfield, Zumbrota and Wabasha.
"People are fed up with the way it is," Obermueller said. "We've got to change the people that are there if we want to have a different result."
Obermueller described himself as a moderate Democrat who voted for budget cuts in the Legislature and would push to control deficits and protect Medicare in Congress. He criticized Kline for supporting a Republican budget from Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, including a plan to overhaul Medicare by introducing subsidies to buy private insurance. He brought up Kline's support of allowing workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the private market.
"His votes just don't make sense for this district and don't make sense for the people of Minnesota," Obermueller said.
Kline characterized his opponent as a "tax-and-spend Democrat," citing Obermueller's vote for a 2009 bill to raise state taxes on alcohol, credit card companies and top earners. Kline dismissed Obermueller's Medicare focus as "the old Medi-scare mantra" and said the program won't survive without changes.
"We're the guys that want to save it," Kline said.
As a state lawmaker, Obermueller opposed several of his party's proposals to raise state taxes. He said tax increases would not be "my first option that I would run to."
Obermueller said his television commercials will give voters a better sense of who he is and what he stands for. But he lags Kline in the money chase. In late September, Obermueller said he was still working to raise $1 million, while Kline said he had collected more than $2 million.
Kline is well-known even in the new parts of the district, where TV viewers have seen his campaign ads for years.
But that familiarity doesn't always work in his favor. Marc Battistini, a 63-year-old retired computer analyst from Mendota Heights, said Obermueller will get his vote this year even though he hasn't learned much about him yet.
"I'm not a John Kline fan. I know who he is. He's been there a long time," said Battistini, who added that he votes Democratic.
Voters like Jim Ford, a 68-year-old retired gardener in Eagan, are sticking with Kline. The ex-Marine said Kline was helpful when he had trouble with the Veterans Administration.
"I can't believe for a moment that if the people are looking for the man, as opposed to the party, that he would have any problem," Ford said of Kline.
Kline wouldn't comment on his political future beyond the Nov. 6 election.
"There is a time when you've got to take care of the move right now," he said.
Obermueller said he plans to be on the ballot again in 2014, win or lose this year.
"I intend to run in '14 and I intend to do it as an incumbent," he said. "We understand the importance of making sure we have good representation in Congress."
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