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Gutknecht facing tough challenge from Walz

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Tim Walz with  Duane Silker
"You already got two votes out of this house," says Duane Silker to Tim Walz.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

It's early afternoon on a crisp October Friday. The election is less than three weeks away. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn. is working the far eastern edge of Minnesota's conservative 1st Congressional District, which spans southern Minnesota from South Dakota to Wisconsin.

Sitting on a bar stool in the La Crescent American Legion Gutknecht tells about 25 supporters he did not expect to be in the  electoral trouble after 12 years in Congress. 

"This election in this district is incredibly important and it's proven to be much tougher than I would have thought six months ago," Gutknecht says.  "In fact, it's tougher than I thought it would be two weeks ago."

Gutknecht talks about the need to keep taxes down and to reduce the cost of health care. He says Americans' patience is wearing thin regarding Iraq, and that it's time for a change in tactics.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht talking with support at a LaCre
Sitting on a bar stool in the La Crescent American Legion Gutknecht tells about 25 supporters he did not expect to be in the electoral trouble after 12 years in Congress.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Gutknecht also addresses the Mark Foley congressional e-mail scandal. 

"I have nothing to do with this, but you know what?" he asks. "Our numbers really took a tumble and it's been universally true around the country, and it shocks me that we have been punished for something that we have nothing to do with." 

Finally, Gutknecht talks about his opponent DFLer Tim Walz.  Gutknecht says Walz would raise taxes, support gay marriage, legalize abortion and weaken national defense. 

"This guy... is one of the most liberal candidates that's run down here," Gutknecht says. "He has literally said that he would increase spending on virtually every federal program. The only program that he has said he would cut is  the missile defense system."

The next day, about an hour to the west of La Crescent, in a Rochester neighborhood, it's Democrat Tim Walz  doing the talking, door to door. 

Walz is a former National Guard member who served in support of the war in Afghanistan working at a supply base in Italy.  

He looks more like the Mankato West High School teacher and coach that he is than a polished politician.

And at more than one house, Walz finds former Gutknecht supporters who are on his side now. 

Tim Walz
Tim Walz
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"You already got two votes out of this house," says Duane Silker, referring to his vote and the vote of his wife.

As Walz heads to the next house, Silker explains that he's voted for Gutknecht in the last six elections but that now he wants nothing to do with the GOP.

"The major thing I think right now, of course, is the war," Silker says. "I have absolutely been from the very beginning opposed to the war. And the second thing is the economy. The economy is not good. The middle class people are being killed. And that's why I'm opposed to Republicans. I can't help the Republicans," Silker says.

In Rochester Walz is stressing his opposition to the expansion of the DM&E Railroad. His support for stem cell research also plays well here, home of the Mayo Clinic.    Walz has been campaigning since the beginning of last year, and he says he's confident he's going to win.

"I've been out in front of the people, speaking from the heart about the issues that matter most to them, demonstrating my leadership from things that I've done," he says. "And I think this campaign itself shows what a guy like me can do. I was told we couldn't do this, but you know what?  We built a campaign from the ground up. We received the financing that they said we would never get, and we've made this race one of the most competitive in the country. If that doesn't show you what kind of guy I will be in Congress I am not sure what does." 

Up the street Walz runs into another former Gutknecht supporter who says he will now be voting for him. 

Pete Waitikowich is a retired World War II Navy serviceman. He's angry about the war in Iraq and says it's been a distraction from catching the culprits behind the 9-11 attacks.  He's worried about the economy and he's furious Gutknecht, a term limits supporter, is running for a seventh term he said he would not seek. Waitikowich remembers 1994, when he says Gutknecht banged on his door as part of his first successful campaign for Congress.

Pete Waitikowich
Pete Waitikowich is a retired World War II Navy serviceman. He's angry about the war in Iraq and says it's been a distraction from catching the culprits behind the 9-11 attacks.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"He said; 'Well if I go 12 years, that's enough,' Waitikowich recalls, "Now all of the sudden he thinks he found a home there."

According to campaign finance documents complied by the Center for Responsive Politics, as of the end of last month Walz had raised about  $750,000, compared to Gutknecht's more than  $1.1 million.

In recent weeks the tight 1st District  battle has been attracting outside "independent expenditure" money.

All the national attention to Minnesota's 1st District has come as something of a surprise.  The editor of the Winona Daily News, Darrell Erlich, says Walz put himself in a good position to ride the anti-incumbency wave.

"Walz has a real appeal to every man," says Erlich.  "He's a football coach. He's not as polished as Gutknecht and there's something just genuinely likeable...  Gil Gutknecht is a very fine speaker, I think pretty well informed, but there's some real populist appeal to Walz," Erlich says.

Erlich also says Walz may have outworked Gutknecht by showing up everywhere around the district. 

"I think how he's gotten in the door is a little bit of complacency from the Gutknecht campaign. This has been such a safe seat."

How safe? 

Darrell Erlich, editor of the Winona Daily News.
The editor of the Winona Daily News, Darrell Erlich, says Walz put himself in a good position to ride the anti-incumbency wave.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Back at the American Legion in La Crescent Gutknecht seemed surprised to hear supporters say they don't have lawn signs and campaign literature. 

"We've got to get signs down here. That's just outrageous. I just can't believe we didn't get that done," Gutknecht says.

Gutknecht proudly calls himself a conservative.  He's hoping voters will look beyond Walz's populist appeal to his stands on the issues. 

"I think we need to get them to analyze what the difference between the two of us really is," Gutknecht says. "I think once they understand, particularly in counties like Winona County and Houston County where people are socially pretty conservative people, I think once they understand where he stands on issues like gay marriage and abortion, I think  a lot of those people are going to come home," Gutknecht says.

Walz avoids the label "liberal."  He says decisions on things like abortion and gay marriage should be left to individuals, not the government. He says that's conservative. 

"If liberal is spending 24 years in the military. If liberal is having an "A" rating from the NRA. If liberal is being happily married with two children. If liberal is wanting investments in our schools and wanting to pay down the national debt, I guess I am., But calling me the most liberal person I think what the congressman has obviously polled and found some linguistic things there that he would like to hit on," Walz says.

Gil Gutknecht defeated his last two opponents with 60 percent of the vote. In a normal year Gutknecht's would have been one of the safest of any of Minnesota's congressional seats. 

Tim Walz is convinced this is not a normal year. 

Democrats hope the success Walz is apparently having in Minnesota is a sign they soon will be in the majority in Washington.