ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- The stage for this year's 6th District congressional race is probably even more conservative than in years past, thanks to redistricting earlier this year. But the story is still one of an underdog fighting an uphill battle.
With themes that include the economy, the nation's budget and health care, the contest features two contrasting characters: a tea-party backed Republican congresswoman who ran for president and a wealthy Democratic businessman trying to appeal to voters as a centrist.
Jim Graves, a property management executive, is trying to do what three other Democrats failed to do in the 6th District: defeat Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Although the Graves campaign is encouraged by a recent internal poll showing a competitive race, he is struggling with fundraising -- and that same poll shows that voters throughout the district don't know him, even after six months of campaigning.
At a parade on a recent Saturday in the outlying Twin Cities suburb of Ramsey, Graves was out to raise his political profile, pushing a message aimed at middle-of-the-road voters.
"You don't draw lines in the sand," Graves said. "You don't make pledges before you get to Congress. You keep an open mind."
Graves supports parts of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's signature health care legislation, that increase access to care by allowing young people to stay on their parents' health insurance until they are 26 years old and not limiting coverage for pre-existing conditions.
However, he doesn't think the law goes far enough in addressing the overall costs of health care.
To balance the federal budget, Graves supports increasing revenues by eliminating the Bush-era tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year but maintaining them for those making less.
He also supports military spending cuts and doing away with tax breaks for oil companies.
Graves, who is running for office for the first time, is campaigning on his expertise in business. He started a hotel management company with properties around the country, including the Graves 601 Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
He faces a stiff challenge in Bachmann, who runs as a fiscal conservative. She has long sought to limit the size of the federal government and has called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Both were pillars of her presidential campaign.
"I've been a very strong voice against all of the wasteful spending and all of the outreach of government and the growth of government," Bachmann said. "And people are grateful because they see that government is growing at the expense of the average Minnesotan."
Despite Bachmann's national profile and redistricting that would seem to make the 6th District more conservative, the Graves campaign claims to be gaining traction.
It cites a poll it paid for that shows Bachmann with 48 percent of the likely voters to Graves' 46 percent.
The poll, conducted Aug. 29-30 by a Washington, D.C., pollster, sampled 401 voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
But in that same poll, almost all voters say they know Bachmann, while only 38 percent say they have heard of Graves.
Graves also trails dramatically in fundraising. At the end of July, Bachmann had $2.2 million cash on hand to Graves' $351,000. Since March, Graves has loaned his campaign at least $250,000.
Last month the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee listed Graves' race as one of 20 competitive races around the country. Such designations can be a signal that opens donors' wallets. The committee also pledged financial, strategic and grass roots support to Graves, but did not give specifics.
Bachmann's profile from her presidential bid, marked by sharp partisan rhetoric, provides Graves an opportunity, said University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson, who studies congressional politics and campaigns.
"Jim Graves' challenge is to persuade independent voters and some Republican voters that he is a centrist and would be willing to vote against Democrats in Congress," Pearson said. "But at the same time he needs to excite Democrats in that district enough to really work hard and campaign for him."
Pearson also said Bachmann's history of making controversial, and sometimes inaccurate, statements could help Graves.
Over the summer, Bachmann faced criticism from both Democrats and members of her own party over her claims that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political movement in the Middle East, has influence on the federal government. She later said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, had ties to the organization, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Ellison said the claims are false.
Graves released a statement condemning the remarks and in online messages asks voters to "demand that Michele Bachmann end her McCarthy-style witch-hunt."
But Bachmann's controversial statements are a Graves talking point, they're not the top one. "I'm running for the people, not against Michele Bachmann," he said.
Pearson said it's wise for Graves to offer voters reasons to vote for him. But she says the race will nevertheless be a referendum on Bachmann.
"Michele Bachmann is the incumbent," Pearson said. "She is extremely well-known, not just in the district, but nationally. So ultimately this is a race about Michele Bachmann -- whether or not Jim Graves' campaign want to cast it that way."
To make the race competitive, Graves will have to raise more money -- and not just narrow the financial gap, Pearson said. Donors who give money -- even small amounts -- are generally more willing to promote a candidate to others, she said.
Campaigns with a large number of donors also tend to attract funding from the national political parties as well as outside groups.
MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik contributed to this report.