Republican U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht has served southern Minnesota for 12 years. Democrat Tim Walz is a political newcomer from Mankato. This election may be Gutknecht's toughest challenge since he was first elected.
Gil Gutknecht and Tim Walz have starkly different messages for voters. And each has a strikingly different presence. Gutknecht is a slender man with perfectly combed hair and a skill for spinning stories.
They often start with, "I was reminded of a true story that happened..."
Tim Walz is a burly, gray-haired guy. He speaks with the hoarse, urgent voice of a drill sergeant, and crisp statements like, "The contrast between us is becoming more clear."
The two have clashed, albeit politely, at numerous forums and debates across Minnesota. In Owatonna, Walz took Gutknecht to task for his renewable fuels voting record.
"Voted 'no' to offering incentives to alternative fuel vehicles. Voted 'no' to provide an additional $30 million for renewable energy programs. Voted 'no' to require electric companies to reduce dependence on non-renewables," Walz recited.
"It's fine to say one thing," Walz continued. "When it comes time to cast that vote or influence your colleagues to go a certain way, you simply can't have bills languishing in Congress that never get out of conference and say you're a champion for these things."
"Well, there he goes again," Gutknecht responded. "He starts out by saying, 'Let's not divide us, let's not have election-year politicking,' and then he gives a speech like the one he just gave. The truth of the matter is everybody in southern Minnesota knows that I have been working for renewable energy since from the time I was in the state Legislature. I was in favor of ethanol when ethanol wasn't popular, back when people called it gasohol."
The candidates also hotly debated Iraq, health care and the federal deficit. Walz says he would vote to repeal the Bush tax cuts made on individual incomes that exceed $330,000. Walz says that will help balance the budget.
Gutknecht says taxes aren't the problem. He says the budget needs to be cut further, including spending in Iraq.
Gutknecht says Iraq is worse off today than it was in 2001. He says U.S. troops are viewed by Iraqis as part of the country's problems.
"That doesn't mean I think we should have an immediate withdrawal, because I certainly don't want to pull our troops out and leave a bloodbath there," Gutknecht explained. "But wherever we can, we've got to put pressure on the Iraqis to take responsibility for themselves."
Walz says the U.S. needs a more coherent plan, so United Nations troops can help stabilize the country.
"Have some humility. The arrogance of our diplomacy has scared everyone else away," said Walz. "I do believe you need to pour more people into there, and I do believe there needs to be an accountability emphasis on the infrastructure, making sure those infrastructure projects are done."
Walz also wants more spending for veterans' health. The candidates also disagree on remedies for rising health care costs. Gutknecht says health savings accounts and "minute clinics" are the solution. Walz says it's universal health care.
But Joe Kunkel, a politica science professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, says the issues may not matter in this race. This may be about Gutknecht's smooth personality and his incumbency.
"When they run for re-election, they really are oftentimes running based on their fit for the district," Kunkel says.
Kunkel says Gutknecht's name recognition will make it difficult to unseat him. But he adds this election will be a referendum on the Republican Party, the president and recent scandals.
"For Gutknecht to lose in this race would probably be caused by a tidal wave running against Republicans nationwide, which Democrats will pick up," Kunkel says.
Kunkel says Gutknecht's support of a $2.3 billion federal loan to DM&E railroad may hurt his support in Rochester. He says parts of the region see the loan as a political favor that slipped through while Gutknecht was "asleep at the wheel."
Owatonna resident Sharon Decker doesn't see DM&E as a make-or-break issue. Decker listened to Gutknecht and Walz debate, but she's not sure who'll get her vote.
"We had two different individuals speaking two different worlds," Decker says.
Owatonna has typically voted for conservative candidates. But after the recent debate it was clear that many in the audience shared Decker's indecision.