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Defiant Grams Blasts GOP Leaders

When Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty became the latest Republican to treat the Senate nomination of Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) as inevitable, former Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.) lashed out at his party’s establishment, accusing leaders of playing favorites.

Pawlenty this week joined Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and a majority of the Gopher State’s Republican state Senators in backing Kennedy over Grams for the 2006 GOP Senate nod.

No other Republican has entered the race to succeed retiring Sen. Mark Dayton (D). The nominating process is a two-step affair, with a state party convention followed by a primary.

Grams, who lost to Dayton in 2000, compared state Republican Party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner to King George III and accused the party of partaking in “third world” politicking.

“There’s a feeling that the state party is trying to be kingmakers and usurping [the convention delegates’] role,” Grams, now a Washington lobbyist, said. “The delegates won’t even be elected until March of next year.

“We’ve got almost two years; this is awfully early to do this,” he added.

Eibensteiner reiterated that he has not and would not endorse a candidate until after next year’s state party convention, but that has done little to quiet Grams.

Grams said Eibensteiner’s comments that Kennedy had the nomination pretty much sewn up and his allowing Pawlenty to endorse Kennedy at a news conference in state party headquarters were not neutral moves.

“He can say what he wants but that’s bulls**t,” Grams charged. “He’s just trying to dictate.”

Some Republicans say Grams’ complaints belie two facts that he may not like. First, the party that can unify behind one candidate early generally has the advantage.

No Democrat has formally entered the Senate race yet but several, including child safety advocate Patty Wetterling, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar and wealthy attorney Mike Ciresi are eying the race.

Second, Grams, despite having served one term in the Senate and one in the House, is now seen as peripheral candidate.

“Whether he drops out or not, he’s a non-candidate,” said one Republican insider who did not want to be identified. “Everybody in the party knows that his chances are slim to none and slim left town a long time ago.”

Perhaps the biggest albatross hanging around the neck of the Hecht, Spencer and Associates lobbyist is his 2000 loss to Dayton.

Grams spent $7.6 million to Dayton’s $12 million, though Grams put no personal money into his race while the department store heir Dayton practically self-funded his entire bid.

Grams lost 49 percent to 43 percent.

Grams “lost his last race against a weak candidate and he’s going to be up against a tough candidate and everybody wants to win,” explained Scott Johnson, contributor to the Powerline Web site, a Minnesota-based political Web log.

But beyond his defeat, what may hurt him more is what he has done since then.

“Since 2000 he has not helped in any way,” the Republican insider said. “He has not helped other Republicans get elected, he hasn’t done any fundraising; he has dropped out of sight.”

By contrast, Kennedy has been laying the groundwork since he was first elected to the House in 2000, massaging party activists, raising money for state lawmakers and otherwise being an all-around team player, the source continued.

For example, when he lost the bulk of his original district in redistricting, Kennedy nonetheless ran in the new 6th in 2002, leaving his old 2nd district, which had been changed to the GOP’s advantage, available for fellow Republican John Kline, who went on to win the seat.

“If I was Rod Grams I would be very upset that I hadn’t been more successful in getting elected officials, donors or party activists to support him,” Eibensteiner said. “I am neutral in the race but these are the facts.”

A majority of Minnesota state Senators have already joined Coleman and Pawlenty in lining up behind Kennedy and a lot of state House Members have followed suit.

For his part, Grams, who owns three radio stations in central Minnesota, believes he will still have the support of those who helped him in 2000.

“I’ve got a lot of support as well; we just have to wait until we can figure out” who wins the nominating convention, he said.

Grams also said that, when the time comes, he is confident many of his former House and Senate colleagues will come to Minnesota and stump on his behalf and help him raise money.

“I think I can have a lot of support and Senators who will come and campaign if I ask, when I ask, and a lot of House Members too,” he said.

For now, however, Grams says he is focused on the grass-roots and party activists.

“That’s great to have [Coleman and Pawlenty’s] support, but I think the delegates are the ones that are the important players here and they are the ones I am going to be talking to,” he said.

A spokesman for Coleman explained that Coleman picked his horse early to help the party.

“The Senator believes that Congressman Kennedy is hard working and a proven leader; he knows him to be a man of integrity and he’s a proven winner,” the spokesman, Andy Brehm, said. “The Senator believes Republicans chances of winning are improved the quicker they find a consensus candidate.”

Grams believes Coleman and Pawlenty may be paying him back for not supporting them in some of their past campaigns.

“Political wounds don’t heal well, but I have no arguments with the governor or Sen. Coleman,” he said. “They can do what they want, but I’ll just keep going on.”

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