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Insurgent Leading Establishment Favorite in Minnesota Battle

It’s a political scenario that might look a little familiar to Democrats. A female candidate who initially had the lion’s share of her party establishment’s support now has fallen behind a charismatic attorney with an unusual name in a battle for the Democratic nod that has been marked by unprecedented voter turnout.

But this is not the dwindling weeks of the Democratic presidential primary contest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.). This is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor endorsement race in Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional district, in which Iraq War veteran Ashwin Madia is only one step away from upsetting the early favorite, state Sen. Terri Bonoff.

The winner of the 3rd DFL district endorsement on April 12 will face state Rep. Erik

Paulsen (R) this November, as both candidates have agreed to adhere to the results of the convention vote and not force a costly and potentially divisive primary in September.

The suburban Minneapolis district is considered one of House Democrats’ best pick-up opportunities of the election cycle. It also is considered the most moderate House district in the state, giving retiring Rep. Jim Ramstad (R) large margins during his nine terms in office, but only narrowly voting for Republican presidential contenders in 2004 and 2000.

To win the 3rd district DFL endorsement, either Madia or Bonoff must have the support of about 60 percent of the delegates — or about 95 people — on April 12. Madia’s campaign says it has the support of about 86 delegates compared with about 67 for Bonoff, including 15 superdelegates.

To rebound and win the DFL endorsement, Bonoff must persuade both the handful of undecided delegates and some in Madia’s camp.

“You know, Ashwin has been saying things like, ‘It’s time for us to come together,’” Bonoff said. “And I think that’s very presumptuous because my delegates are still strongly supporting my candidacy and I owe it to my supporters to give it everything I’ve got until April 12.”

Madia chalks up his momentum to his grass-roots strategy, which can be particularly effective in the the convention-based DFL endorsement process.

“I certainly was not part of the political establishment here in Minnesota, and we organized a very strong grass-roots effort,” he said. “And we weren’t about using a lot of tools that politicians usually use to win races, things like money and endorsements and things like that.”

Because the final district convention only involves a select group of activists, traditional political means such as television advertisements and high-dollar fundraisers have less of an impact than they do in traditional party primaries around the rest of the country.

But what likely did have an impact on Madia’s lead were Obama’s statewide Feb. 5 caucus win and unprecedented DFL turnout. The delegates for district conventions were chosen from a localized pool of more than 214,000 DFLers who voted statewide — almost four times the number that turned out in 2004.

Former state Democratic Party Chairman Rick Stafford, a Clinton supporter who is neutral in the Congressional race, said about 85 percent of the delegates at this June’s state convention are first-time delegates, compared with an even split between newcomers and old-timers at the 2004 convention.

“When we had such a turnout for Obama, the dynamics changed,” Stafford said. “I think that, you know, huge turnout for the Obama folks translated into change and anyone who was an elected official was seen for some as establishment and not vehicle for change.”

But in an ironic twist to the race, Bonoff was an early Obama supporter, while Madia is neutral in the Democratic presidential contest.

Bonoff discards any comparison of her race to the presidential contest as “shallow” and “superficial.” She points out that she roughly is the same age as Obama and that she was elected to the Legislature as an insurgent fairly recently — in 2005 — as reason enough to believe she’s not part of any old-school style of politics.

“Sen. Obama spent eight years in the state Legislature before he went to the Senate,” she said. “I think his experience might parallel mine.”

But at least one political observer believes that the general election will be a contest about which candidate moves furthest to the center in the moderate district. Barry Casselman, a national political commentator who lives in Minnesota, said Bonoff has a reputation of being a more moderate candidate than Madia — a characterization Bonoff agrees with, pointing to her endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce and her business background.

Casselman sees Madia as to Bonoff’s left politically, but the attorney, who has no legislative record to prove otherwise, rejects that depiction.

“If anything, I think I’m a little more centrist,” Madia said. “I know I’m more fiscally responsible and I know that on Iraq, the plan I support is a more gradual withdrawal, which is a more moderate response than the immediate withdrawal that she favors.”

Casselman also points out that Paulsen is more conservative than Ramstad on many issues.

“This is the most centrist district in the whole state,” Casselman said. “The candidate who appears to be the most moderate will be the winner.”

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