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Minnesota Match-Up Pits Incumbent Against 'Folk Hero'

Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy (search) has had tough races before — in 2000, for instance, he won his first election to Congress by 150 votes.

But this year, Democrats say they have a candidate who could prove too tough for Kennedy. Political novice Patty Wetterling (search) has more than 90 percent name recognition throughout the state of Minnesota — and that name is synonymous with public safety and protecting children.

"Whoever wins, it's going to be a very, very, very narrow margin," predicted Greg Hansen, Wetterling supporter and chairman of the 6th District Congressional Committee for the Minnesota Democrat-Farm Labor Party.

Kennedy, who before being elected was a corporate executive to at least four major companies, first won in Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District. In 2002, he won the redistricted 6th District seat. He said he believes this record will help him win and he's ready for the fight.

"I believe this campaign is going to be about my record of accomplishment and vision for the future," Kennedy told FOXNews.com. "And I believe the principles I represent, and getting things done, is consistent with the views of the district."

The district, which incorporates six counties around the Twin Cities (search) of Minneapolis and St. Paul, encompasses a diversity of Minnesota family life, stretching from rural farm country to both working class and wealthy suburban areas with college communities thrown into the mix.

Republicans say this district is more conservative than Kennedy's former stomping grounds. George W. Bush (search) beat former Vice President Al Gore there in 2000, 52 to 42 percent. Voters also went heavily for Sen. Norm Coleman (search) and Gov. Tim Pawlenty (search), both Republicans, in 2002.

Kennedy, who serves on both the House Financial Services and Transportation Committees, said he has worked hard to extend tax relief, particularly on the ban on the estate tax (search), which he said hurts farmers in his district.

He's said he's also supportive of trade agreements that level the playing field for dairy, beef, corn and other industries at home.

"To continue to open up markets for them is constant work," he said.

On social issues, he has voted against late-term abortions, and for the president's efforts to build faith-based charities. He calls building new houses in his district "our biggest crop."

He said many of his constituents inhabit the "exurbs" — the neighborhoods beyond the suburbs — and they consider themselves independent and "more freedom-loving."

"Those are the exact type of values that I represent," he said.

Randy Wanke, spokesman for the Minnesota Republican Party, agrees.

"Obviously, we are very confident in Congressman Kennedy," he said. "[He] represents the people of that district, and has worked very hard for the people in that district."

But supporters of Wetterling like to point out that the 6th District also went heavily for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (search), one of the most liberal senators in recent memory, and for independent Gov. Jesse Ventura (search), both in 1998. They say this not a party-loyal electorate, but prime real estate for a fresh face like Wetterling.

"People here are free thinkers who will generally do what their hearts and minds tell them to do," said Hansen. "I would call it a swing district, or a very independent district."

Wetterling also has an appeal that can tug at voters' heartstrings. Crushed after the abduction of her 11-year-old son by a masked gunman in 1989, Wetterling has made strengthening child abduction laws her crusade, with marked success.

According to her biography, she helped get passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Sex Offender Registration Act (search), the state law named after her son, who was never found, and played a role in the 1994 Federal Crime Bill (search). She also helped initiate the sex offender registry plan, or Megan's Law (search), in Minnesota, and the statewide launch of the Amber Alert (search) system.

"In Minnesota, she's kind of a folk hero," said Hansen, who cited polls that found Wetterling to have 91 percent name recognition in the state — and more than 80 percent of it favorable. "Though she has never held political office, she does have a record of legislative achievement, she knows how to get it done."

National Democrats are looking on this race fondly.

"This is someone people know and respect," said Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (search). "As soon as she got in, we knew this was going to be a top race and the polling confirmed it."

Republicans, on the other hand, are playing down stories that Wetterling has internal polls putting her just three points behind Kennedy. Instead, they're pointing to an August forum with Kennedy in which Wetterling admitted she was not up on all of the issues, including one of Minnesota's most important ones — agriculture.

"She's probably a very nice woman but she's not ready for prime time," said Chris Paulitz, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee (search). "She has no grasp on the issues whatsoever, and unfortunately she has not prepared herself better for this race."

Kennedy backers say the second-term businessman is up to speed on all the issues of concern to voters.

"Rep. Kennedy is not only an active leader on the floor of the House, he also works extremely hard behind the scenes to get things accomplished. He is a passionate advocate for the people and values he represents," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who works with Kennedy on the Domestic and International Monetary Policy, Trade and Technology Subcommittee of the Financial Services Committee

"As a successful businessman, Representative Kennedy understands the negative impact that out-of-control federal spending can have on families, businesses and the overall economy. He is a true friend of the taxpayer and one of the few members of Congress willing to fight put more money back into the hands of the American families," Hensarling said.

Wanke suggested that Wetterling is hesitant about offering specifics on the issues not just because of her inexperience, but also because she is too liberal for the constituency. He pointed to her endorsements by MoveOn.org and the pro-choice women's group Emily's List (search) — she is one of a handful of candidates across the country to get these endorsements.

"She is getting endorsements from ultra-left-wing organizations that don't share the views of the people of the 6th District," Wanke said.

Ramona Oliver of Emily's List said that Wetterling got their blessing — one of 19 endorsements for Democratic women this election — because they think she can win.

"The ability to affect bipartisan solutions is one of the many things that makes her tremendously appealing," said Oliver.

The Rothenberg Political Report (search) has included this race on its competitive list, with a favorable tilt towards Kennedy.

"[Wetterling] needs to make the case why voters should fire Mark Kennedy," said Rothenberg analyst Nathan Gonzales. However, "it's unclear that he has made significant votes that would endanger his incumbency."