By MARTIGA LOHN
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Three decades after he left Congress, Democrat Rick Nolan believes he is ready to go back — and more prepared than ever for the job.
Nolan is the oldest of three Democrats running in an Aug. 14 primary to take on Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack, a top national target after beating an 18-term Democratic congressman in northeastern Minnesota two years ago. Nolan has the backing of his party but trails former state Sen. Tarryl Clark in fundraising.
The 68-year-old former congressman cheerfully told The Associated Press in an interview this week that he was well prepared to return to Washington, now armed with 30 years of business and community service experience. Nolan was 30 when first elected to the U.S. House in 1974, and served until 1981 in a career that ranged from sugar subsidies to diplomacy.
"I am healthy, I am energetic and I feel better prepared than at any point in my life to serve in the Congress of the United States," said Nolan, whose old district roughly overlapped some southern portions of the district hes now seeking.
But his opponents are making Nolans years an issue, in part by linking him to former Rep. Jim Oberstar, 77, who lost to Cravaack and now enthusiastically supports Nolan. State Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge has called the pair "Watergate babies" and "Grumpy Old Men." Democrat Jeff Anderson, a 35-year-old former Duluth city councilman also running in the primary for the 8th District, criticized Nolan in an AP interview last week as too tied to the past.
Nolan said the age issue melts away when voters meet him in person.
"I havent had anybody ask me that question in months," he said. "They feel my energy and my passion and hear my message, and its just gone away."
Before political boundaries were adjusted this year, the 2010 census showed that the 8th District had the oldest median age of Minnesotas eight congressional districts. A fifth of its population is age 62 or older.
At the end of March, Nolan had $40,000 in the bank, compared with $418,000 for Clark and $20,000 for Anderson. Nolan said he has since stepped up his fundraising and aims to raise $300,000 by the primary. Oberstar is headlining a fundraiser for him next week in Golden Valley.
Nolan got into the race last July after trying to recruit a candidate to challenge Cravaack, who is 52, and being turned down by Democrats including Duluth Mayor Don Ness and current and former state legislators.
In the AP interview, Nolan attacked Cravaack for votes last year to cut funding for small regional airports in the Essential Air Service program and aid to homeless veterans as part of a budget resolution. He also criticized Cravaack for supporting a budget proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would dramatically overhaul Medicare for future retirees.
"He voted to eliminate Medicare as we know it," Nolan said.
Cravaacks congressional spokesman Michael Bars said Cravaack, a Navy veteran, protected Minnesota airports in negotiations over the Essential Air Service program, while nine other airports lost their funding.
He also said Cravaack voted to increase funding for veterans beyond President Barack Obamas budget request. FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan project at the University of Pennsylvania, found that congressional Democrats overstated the effect of the cut to homeless veterans and that it would have had little or no immediate effect.
In a separate interview, Cravaack said Medicare would go bankrupt in 2021 if Congress doesnt act. He said Ryans current plan would give future retirees the choice of staying in traditional Medicare or getting financial support to purchase insurance policies.
"Doing nothing would be a dereliction of duty on my part," Cravaack said.
Nolan lives on a small farm outside Crosby and serves on his township board. His business experience includes turning around a small sawmill in Emily and establishing the World Trade Center in St. Paul. Nolan also ran an export business and worked as a real estate broker.
Responding to criticism from Clark and Anderson that he spends time in Florida, Nolan said he is no snowbird. He said he owns a condo in Bonita Springs, Fla., and vacations there for a week or two each year.
"I have been paying taxes, real estate and income taxes, and voting and living in Minnesota virtually all my adult life," he said.
Nolan passed on the chance to criticize Clark, 50, or Anderson. He said they hold similar positions on the issues.
"Youre going to have to cut my tongue out before I would say anything unkind about either one of them," he said.
On policy, Nolan said he supports ending U.S. involvement in "wars of choice," eliminating tax cuts and tax breaks for the wealthy, establishing a national single-payer health care system and rebuilding infrastructure. He also backs precious metals mining on the Iron Range but said he would push to ensure that the projects include protections for miners and the environment.
Nolan backs abortion rights and gun rights.
He is also the only candidate in the race who has negotiated with former Cuban President Fidel Castro for the release of American political prisoners. As a congressman, Nolan and then-Rep. Frederick Richmond, D-N.Y., spent a night in December 1977 in talks with Castro, which led to the release of the last handful of U.S. prisoners.
"Its not that often that you go to a meeting with somebody and they unstrap their guns and set them on the table, especially a president," Nolan said.