At a time when Americans are uneasy and Congress has a record-low approval rating, it's not surprising that all three candidates seeking to replace retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad are promising change.
"I think we could do so much better than what we've been doing over the last several years," DFLer Ashwin Madia told Minnesota's delegation to the Democratic National Convention in August.
During the candidates' first debate in Golden Valley, Independence Party candidate David Dillon said progress can't happen in Washington because of the locked battle between the Red Guys and the Blue Guys.
"Congress is broken, and I want to help fix it," said Republican Erik Paulsen in a brief speech to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
Paulsen is the only one in the race who has held public office.
Paulsen has walked the hallways at the State Capitol countless times during his 14 years in the Legislature, serving as both majority and minority leader of the Minnesota House. He seems to know just about everybody around here.
"How are you?" Paulsen said, cheerfully greeting a familiar face in the building's musty press quarters.
"Being followed around?" the man asked.
"Oh, I'm always being followed," Paulsen replied, noting that wherever he goes now, reporters and DFL trackers are close behind.
But whatever happens on Election Day, Paulsen's footsteps won't be heard in these halls as often as they used to be. He had to give up his seat in the Legislature to run for Congress. He'll miss it here, but says he has no second thoughts.
"It's a little bit of move up or move out, right?" he joked. "I'm just excited now to have the energy and the enthusiasm to do it at a different level, and really offer something to people to get stuff done. That's exciting to me."
Paulsen, 43, argues he's better prepared for Congress than his opponents, in part because of his experience at the Legislature. And he borrows one of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's favorite lines, when explaining why he wants to make all the Bush tax cuts permanent.
"I don't believe that Washington has a revenue problem," Paulsen said. "I believe they have a spending problem."
Paulsen says the Republican Party has lost its way when it comes to fiscal responsibility, and he wishes President Bush had used his veto power to reduce government spending.
"He should have been doing that earlier," Paulsen said. "I don't know why he wasn't. And I think it's one of the reasons Republicans lost control of Congress, too. I don't think the Republicans in Congress were doing a good job of addressing the federal budget deficit."
Paulsen says the Iraq war was mishandled, too. He favors continuing the current draw-down of troops, as long as military leaders think it's a good idea. When asked if the war has been worth the cost, he doesn't answer directly.
But he does say that "if we knew then what we know now, I don't think the decision would be made the way it was. I just don't think that would have happened."
The Iraq war is personal for Paulsen's DFL opponent, Ashwin Madia. He served there as a Marine Corps lawyer, and wants most of the troops out within two years.
Madia has been campaigning and raising money just about all day, every day for a year now. He's a 30-year-old bachelor, he's never run for office before, and he surprised the DFL establishment by toppling a better-known and better-financed opponent to win the party endorsement this spring.
Paulsen's campaign has questioned whether Madia is prepared to serve in Congress, but Madia argues he has plenty of experience.
"Experience as a Marine, experience serving in Iraq, experience working with homeless people, battered women, disabled kids, immigrants seeking asylum, experience working with unemployed people, experience working with General Electric and Honeywell on intellectual property matters. That's all relevant experience, too," Madia said.
Madia's priorities are to draw down troops in Iraq, invest in education and renewable energy and move toward a balanced federal budget.
Madia used to be a Republican, but says George W. Bush turned him into a Democrat. Madia emphasizes the importance of sacrifice, and he favors a rule called "pay as you go."
"Every new spending plan that I've proposed throughout this campaign, which have been minimal, we have listed where the spending offsets would come from, line by line and dime by dime," he said.
Madia complains Paulsen hasn't shown specifically how he'll pay for continuing all the Bush tax cuts.
Like Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Madia wants to end those tax cuts for families making more than $250,000 a year. He promises not to increase taxes on people making less than that, in spite of some misleading Republican television ads claiming he would.
But, Madia is skeptical of Obama's proposal to give additional tax breaks to the middle class.
"We have just passed an $800 billion bailout package," Madia said. "I'm not sure that this is the right time for another round of massive tax cuts, unless people will say how they'll pay for it, unless they will show where they're getting the spending offsets."
Madia was living in Minneapolis when Jim Ramstad announced his retirement. He moved back to the suburban district when he decided to run for Congress.
Madia's family has lived in Plymouth since his junior year of high school. Early last month he went back to his old school to take questions from students there.
"What's your favorite Osseo Senior High memory?" asked teacher Bill Bauman, who screened the questions.
Madia replied that it was his campaign for Student Senate. He arrived at Osseo, knowing no one, and it was only two weeks before the election.
"I just went all out and started campaigning," Madia recalled. "No one's ever heard of me before. We put posters up all over the school, and I just tried to meet as many people as I could, and I got elected to the Student Senate."
In a poll released earlier this month, Madia had a slight lead over Paulsen, but it was within the margin of error.
Republicans have been representing the 3rd District for nearly half a century. But the Minneapolis suburbs have become a swing district, supporting both Democrats and Republicans in recent years.
National Republican and Democratic groups are spending heavily there in the final weeks of the campaign, an indication of how competitive the race is.
Independence Party candidate David Dillon hopes the district will swing in an entirely new direction.
Dillon has been the chief executive officer of Meyers Printing Co. in Brooklyn Park for two decades. The company employs 300 people and pulls in $55 million in annual revenue. It was a $7 million operation when he took it over from his father.
"Frankly, because the business is so successful, and because my kids are off to college, it made it possible for me to do this," Dillon said. "Otherwise, like everyone else in the world, I'd be nose to the grindstone, trying to make a go in a tough economy."
Dillon grew up in a Democratic family and became a Republican after college. But he left the party because, he said, he disagreed with its stands on social issues.
"Both parties are in a lot of ways run by their wingnuts," he said.
Dillon wants to simplify the federal tax code and balance the budget. He has vowed to resign if he ever requests an earmark project or votes for deficit spending. And he wants to reduce the military budget, moving that money into infrastructure programs.
"The Cold War is over," Dillon said. "And our army is built on the idea of meeting other giant armies on the battlefield in uniform."
Dillon's background is in economics, but he's a bit of a history buff, too. His corner office at Meyers is filled with memorabilia related to his family business.
"Back in the old days, printers did everything," Dillon said. "They printed books. They printed fliers. They printed posters. They weren't specialized like we are today."
On a shelf, below some antique printing presses, are five copies of a book his father printed back in the 1960s. It's called "Advertising Wins Elections." If that's true, then it will be either Ashwin Madia or Erik Paulsen who takes over Jim Ramstad's seat in Congress, not David Dillon.
Paulsen and Madia have raised $2 million apiece for their campaigns. They also have national parties and outside groups running ads to help them. Dillon has raised less than $200,000, and most of it has come out of his own pocket.
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