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DFLers dial for delegates in race to replace Ramstad

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Dialing for delegates
Ashwin Madia (left,) a lawyer and Iraq war veteran making his first run for office, spends about 12 hours a day on the phone courting delegates and raising money. He is in a close endorsement battle with Sen. Terri Bonoff (right,) DFL-Minnetonka. They are both candidates for the seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., who is not seeking re-election.
MPR Photos/Curtis Gilbert

When Jim Ramstad made his surprise announcement in September, a number of notable Minnesota Democrats considered taking a run for the seat. But they all quickly got out of the way for Terri Bonoff.

Bonoff with supporter
A supporter greets congressional candidate and state Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, at a Senate District convention in Champlin on March 8.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

"I'm a mom, a businesswoman, a community activist, a state senator, and with your support, I would be honored to be your next congresswoman," Bonoff said at a DFL Senate District convention in Champlin on Saturday.

Bonoff was soon labeled the "leading candidate," raking in campaign donations and locking up support from many of her DFL colleagues in the Legislature. 

But Bonoff is now running second in the race to win over DFL delegates in the 3rd District. The candidate in the lead is Ashwin Madia. He's a 30-year-old lawyer and Iraq war veteran making his first run for public office.

"I'm running for Congress, because I think we need more strong Democrats in office, who aren't afraid to stand up and say what they really believe, even during war time," Madia said to the same audience in Champlin.

Madia courts potential delegates
Congressional candidate Ashwin Madia courts potential delegates at a DFL Senate District Convention March 8 in Plymouth.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Madia's stiff challenge caught Terri Bonoff off guard.

"I didn't know him," she said in a recent interview. "I didn't know who he was. He came out of nowhere, really. So, he surprised me."

He surprised some of the potential delegates, too. 

"I'm like who's this young guy? There's no way he has a chance against Terri Bonoff," DFL activist and potential delegate Jodi Wolk said, recalling the first time she saw Madia.

But then, she heard him speak.

"He was so forceful and passionate and congressional, I guess, that you just knew he was speaking from his heart," she said.

Now, Wolk is a fervent Madia booster. 

While both campaigns agree Madia is ahead in the delegate race, Bonoff argues his lead is slight. 

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland was also seeking the DFL endorsement in the race, but he suspended his campaign this week after failing to win a single delegate.

Madia and Bonoff each say they already have about half of the 96 delegates they'll need to get the endorsement. The endorsing convention is next month, and the delegates to that convention are being selected during the first three weekends in March. 

The stakes are high. Bonoff and Madia have each pledged to drop out of the race if the other is endorsed. 

So that means this stage of the campaign is all about dialing for delegates.

Bonoff says she has about six hours a day to call delegates, because as a state senator, she's tied up at the Capitol right now.

Madia, on the other hand, left his job at a prestigious Minneapolis law firm to run full time. He says he's been averaging 12 hours a day on the phone. Both campaigns have staff and volunteers working the phones, too. 

The potential delegates have been hearing from them a lot.

"I have been overwhelmed by e-mails, in particular, phone calls also -- one as late as almost 11 o'clock at night," said Ralph Green, as he munched a sandwich at his Senate District convention in Plymouth Saturday.

"I happened to have my cell phone with me while I was sitting on the beach in Aruba, and sure enough, it was a call from one of the candidates," said Barb Janisch, who had her convention in Richfield the same day. 

Madia and Bonoff have differences on issues like the war in Iraq and the Bush tax cuts. But when they're courting delegates, a big part of their pitch is electability. That's key in a district that hasn't sent a Democrat to Congress in 50 years. 

But the western suburbs aren't the GOP stronghold they used to be, either. That's a fact the sole Republican in the race, state Rep. Erik Paulsen, acknowledged in a recent speech to supporters.

"You know this is a very winnable race, but it is not going to be like the old Ramstad re-elections," Paulsen said. "It is not a race we can take for granted. It is absolutely not. In fact, it has already been targeted and identified already as one of the top five in the country."

Neither side can take the race for granted. And that's why 3rd District DFLers are paying a lot of attention to the endorsement battle between Terri Bonoff and Ashwin Madia.