DFLers set to endorse Klobuchar for Senate

Klobuchar talking high gas prices
Amy Klobuchar talked about her energy policy during a stop at an area gas station.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

From the beginning of the 2006 U.S. Senate race Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar has been targeting the general public and looking to the general election, rather than concentrating solely on DFL activists. On a recent spring day, she was trying to attract voters at a popular downtown Minneapolis gas station on the issue of high fuel prices.

Early last year when incumbent DFL Sen. Mark Dayton announced he would not seek a second term, several Democrats said they were running or considering running.

Sen. Mark Dayton
Sen. Mark Dayton is a DFLer representing Minnesota. He is not seeking re-election in 2006.
MPR file photo

But the field of candidates seeking the endorsement has narrowed, leaving Klobuchar all but guaranteed to win.

"I honor the endorsement," Klobuchar says. "It's very important to me, but at the same time I'm not going to forget this is about winning in November.

Klobuchar says her campaign is about the general election.

"This is about working with moderate Republicans and independents and going to things like parades and cafes," she says. "And so from the beginning whenever we did an event for the DFL or went to a convention, we would always try to go and meet with people that weren't at that convention."

Ford Bell
Ford Bell says he can win the DFL primary
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Despite Klobuchar's focus on the general population, DFL activists who attended the party's March caucuses gave her 77 percent support in a straw poll. Ford Bell garnered just 16 percent. Bell, a veterinarian and the grandson of the founder of General Mills, has never before run for public office.

Until recently Bell had been saying he would seek the DFL endorsement, but, that if Klobuchar ended up winning by a convincing margin, he would drop out of the race.

Bell has changed his mind. He's decided not to attend the convention and instead has launched a primary campaign against Klobuchar.

He has laid out positions on all of the major issues but he is most outspoken in his belief that all U.S. troops should be pulled out of Iraq.

"I am the only candidate who has said enough is enough. It's time to get all of our troops out not 'well, some this year, some next year maybe some the next year,'" Bell says.

Bell says too many people - Americans and Iraqis -- have been killed in the war and that his anti-war message is resonating with voters.

Crowded campaign quarters
Ford Bell's campaign headquarters are located in south Minneapolis
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"So I do believe the war will be a very significant issue and I am the anti-war candidate," Bell says.

Bell says the war and health care reform are the issues keeping him in the race.

He's pledged to drop out if Klobuchar agrees to aggressively campaign for cutting off funding for the war and for instituting single-payer, universal health care.

Klobuchar says she has no intention of meeting Bell's demands.

"He laid out a number of conditions and I guess he doesn't know me well," she says, " because I am not changing my positions just to avoid a primary with Ford Bell."

Klobuchar also opposes the war. She supports bringing home more than half of the troops this year and withdrawing the rest by the end of next year. She says she would leave open the possibility of including US troops in a United Nation's peacekeeping force.

On health care, Klobuchar wants to immediately provide coverage for all children and work toward coverage for all Americans.

Sharon Sudman
Sharon Sudman has been working to convince delegates to cast an initial "no endorsement" protest vote at the state DFL convention.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Klobuchar faces no serious challenge to winning the DFL Senate endorsement, but a group of delegates is working to prevent her from being endorsed unanimously.

Peace activist and delegate from the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul Sharon Sudman is one of the coordinators of the effort.

"What we're asking people to do is to simply go to the state convention and on the first ballot for the U.S. Senate whatever that may be to vote no endorsement," she says. "And the no endorsement votes however many they total up to be will be something that we can all point to and say these people want authentic leadership."

Sudman says she and the other peace activists are not trying to block Klobuchar's endorsement, but instead want to make a strong statement against the war.

Obama and Klobuchar
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama joined Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar at a campaign rally on Saturday April 8, 2006.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Democrats with high national profiles --Senators John Kerry, D-Mass. and Barack Obama D-Ill. -- have helped Klobuchar raise money. She ended the last reporting period in March with nearly $3.5 million dollars in the bank. Ford Bell had a little more than $200,000.

Bell says outside intervention favoring Klobuchar threatens Minnesota's, grassroots democratic tradition.

"We have a process here in Minnesota for choosing our candidates. We do not need the national party coming in here," Bell says. "This is not the party of Paul Wellstone if we let the national party come in here and tell us who the candidate's going to be."

Klobuchar strongly disputes criticism she is the DFL anointed candidate.

"I do believe the war will be a very significant issue and I am the anti-war candidate."

"You have to remember this race started in February of 2005," says Klobuchar. "For an entire year I slugged it out at bean feeds and went and had debates and Patty Wetterling was in the race. Kelly Doran was in the race. We had a lot of competitiveness going on at the state fair. This went on for an entire year so I don't think anyone would call this the anointed candidate. What happened was that I emerged as a very strong candidate."

Most political observers agree primary challenges take away energy and money from general election campaigns and because of that create problems for party-endorsed candidates.

Political analyst Steven Smith of Washington University says, in Klobuchar's case, battling with Bell up to the September primary, could end up strengthening her candidacy going into the November election.

"This is all a distraction that on net doesn't do her a lot of good," Smith says. "The upside of it is that Bell could actually make her look a little bit more moderate."

Another U.S. casualty
A U.S. soldier treats a wounded colleague at the site where of a car bomb exploded in Baghdad's Tahariyat Square which targeted an American convoy in central Baghdad on May 29, 2006.

Smith says the primary campaign could also sharpen Klobuchar's skills as a candidate.

Klobuchar says she will engage Bell but that her focus will remain on Republican Mark Kennedy. Apart from the war and health care, Bell and Klobuchar have campaigned on broad Democratic themes such as reversing Republican tax cuts, and spending more money on education.

Steven Smith says Bell's strong position on the war gives him a chance to make headway.

"When the headlines in the news are about another 40 dead in Iraq for several days in a row, it sensitizes people to the issue, it raises its visibility," he says. "And a candidate who's taking a stronger position on the issue I think is advantaged and I think that's what Bell is seeing now."

Some national political observers say the 2006 midterm elections could come down to a referendum on the war.

Minnesota's DFL primary may offer insight into just how much support there is among voters for pulling out of Iraq.