The congressional race between Republicans and Democrats in Minnesota's 8th District is shaping up to be a close one.
Democrat Rick Nolan, who was a congressman in the 1970s, is challenging first-term Republican incumbent Chip Cravaack.
Aitkin, a politically divided town of 2,000 a half-hour northeast of Brainerd, is a battleground in the race. Two years ago, Cravaack beat DFLer Jim Oberstar by just 21 votes here. In the 2008 presidential election, voters here were evenly divided.
QUIET SUPPORT, SO FAR
But so far anyway, when you drive around town there are hardly any campaign signs in the yards.
At the busy intersection of Highway 210 and Minnesota Avenue, Brenda Friedrich said she thinks the charged political environment has something to do with people's apparent hesitation to make their politics public.
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"Because of the extremism they hesitate to advertize what their feelings are or who their candidates would be," Friedrich, 59, said. "It seems that people these days can't have opposing opinions and still remain friends."
Friedrich said her most important political issues are addressing the debt and unemployment. She said she's leaning toward supporting Nolan in the congressional race, and she thinks it would be best if Democrats won full control of the federal government.
"If they're divided, it's not going to get anything done, because nobody compromises," she said.
Down the street at the Beanery Internet Cafe, Richard Hakes and Jim Warneke say they do not agree on politics. But Hakes said that doesn't matter.
"We don't discuss it. We don't argue it. We just play cribbage," Hakes said.
Warneke, 82, said he voted for Cravaack two years ago and will do so again in November. He thinks the country needs more conservatism.
"It means not spending blindly beyond our means," Warneke said.
Hakes, 73, said he will vote for Nolan. Like his Republican cribbage partner, Hakes uses just a few words to explain why he supports Democrats.
"I think they're more for the common person. That's all I'll say," Hakes said.
PARTISANS PRESENT PREDICTIONS
Unlike most of the front yards in Aitkin, Pat Williams' property is covered with campaign signs, all of them for Republicans — including Cravaack.
Williams, the deputy chairman of the Aitkin County GOP, thinks voters will blame Democrats for the increasing cost of food and gas. He said that'll help Cravaack, who Williams thinks will also attract gun rights supporters and opponents of legalized abortion.
"He's going to retain his seat without an awful lot of difficulty," Williams, 69, said.
Williams said he's always been a Republican; it's how he grew up and the GOP talking points resonate with him.
"Small government versus big government," Williams said. "It means freedom to me."
The message that government spends too much and imposes too many rules sounds like an easy sell. But the chairman of the 8th District DFL, Bill Pick, said Cravaack and other Republicans ignore the complexities of government with dramatic calls for cost-cutting and cries for freedom.
"It is over simplistic and I think there's a lot of programs that even the Republicans use that they don't realize that if they just dismantle them it's going to hurt everybody," Pick, 65, said.
Take Medicare, for example. Cravaack supports a GOP proposal that give vouchers to future recipients so they could buy their own health insurance rather than rely on Medicare. Democrats don't like the plan, and Pick said it's a campaign issue in the Nolan-Cravaack race.
"The voucher system is not a good way to go," Pick said. "We think that Medicare has to be looked at, and if there are to be some changes to be determined, [Congress should consider] what is the best for everybody not just stop a program and say 'this is better for you.' "
Just as Aitkin Republicans insist Cravaack will win a second term, Pick predicts Democrats will regain the seat they lost two years ago. One thing is certain in this divided 8th District town: voters have a clear choice this fall.