ST. PAUL, Minn. – Mayor Randy Kelly (search) is fond of strumming his guitar to Johnny Cash tunes. But the Democrat's refusal to "walk the line," as the Man in Black famously sang, could cost him his job.
He's feeling heat from voters upset with his endorsement last fall of President Bush. Kelly must make up considerable ground to win a second term Nov. 8 after finishing far behind rival Democrat Chris Coleman (search) in September's nonpartisan primary.
A St. Paul Pioneer Press poll published Friday showed Coleman leading Kelly by a 2-to-1 margin, with a majority of those surveyed saying the mayor's nod to Bush would cost him their vote.
It's rare for a mayor in Minnesota's capital city — the state's second-largest and a Democratic stronghold — to play the part of underdog. St. Paul voters haven't denied re-election to an incumbent in more than three decades.
Coleman, a Kelly ally when he sat on the City Council, and his supporters are hammering the mayor for his association with Bush and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty (search).
Bush's 2004 foe, Sen. John Kerry, was in town for a Coleman rally a few weeks back. Kerry beat Bush by a 3-to-1 margin in St. Paul in 2004.
Across the Mississippi River, Minneapolis has its own mayoral race but with far less intrigue. That nonpartisan contest matches a pair of traditional Democrats, with incumbent Mayor R.T. Rybak favored to win a second term over Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.
St. Paul's endorsement backlash has drowned out most other issues.
Kelly tells voters he took an oath of office, not party. He said he doesn't regret his decision to back Bush; at the time, he said it was important not to change administrations with the country at war.
"I made a decision out of principle a year ago. I'm not going to backtrack on that now," Kelly said.
Kelly has been tested before, winning office in 2001 by roughly 400 votes in the city of 277,000, the narrowest margin ever in a St. Paul mayoral race.
He is urging residents to decide based on his record: He kept city taxes mostly in check, maintained St. Paul's top credit rating, oversaw construction of 5,000 new housing units and expanded the library system. Violent crime had fallen considerably in his first three years until a recent uptick.
But Kelly isn't hiding his ties to Republicans. His campaign mailings show him with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Minnesota's Republican Sen. Norm Coleman — not related to the mayoral candidate — and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Republican activists are rallying to Kelly's defense even though the party itself isn't spending money on the race or officially taking a position, said Rory Koch, head of a local GOP chapter.
"Why is this election about George Bush? That election was in 2004. There are a lot of Republicans sympathetic to Randy because of that," Koch said. "I personally wish the debate was on the issues."
Coleman argues that Kelly's Bush endorsement is a valid issue. He also criticizes Kelly for openly supporting state and federal GOP administrations that have cut aid to St. Paul.
Barbara Sperber, a city resident for almost three decades, said she wants Kelly out. "There are 100 things I don't like about him, but certainly the fact he supported Bush is something I don't like. ... He's essentially a Republican, but he's masquerading as a Democrat," she explained.
The Pioneer Press poll of 400 registered voters showed Kelly trailing Coleman by 61 percent to 28 percent, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. Fifty-seven percent said the Bush endorsement made them less likely to vote for Kelly.
Kelly is trying to appeal to Republicans and independents but insists he's not leaving his party.
"I am a Democrat," he said. "I will continue to be a Democrat and I'm not wavering."