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National Guard Vet Seeks Minn. House Seat

July 17, 2006

ALBERT LEA, Minn. (AP) _ Tim Walz waded into the crowds lining the parade route in this industrial town of 18,000 and shouted his 20-second pitch: teacher, retired Army National Guard, ready and willing to go to Washington.

Backed by chanting supporters in yellow ``Walz ’06″ shirts, his voice was raw as he yelled, ``Give me four months to earn that vote!″

In his first bid for elected office, the Democrat is turning heads as he tries to unseat an entrenched incumbent who came to power with the wave of Newt Gingrich Republicans in 1994. He combines a coach’s beefy enthusiasm with a resolute gaze that shows how this command sergeant major climbed to the top of the ranks for enlisted men.

Republican strategist Tom Horner calls Walz the Democrats’ best hope to pick up a House seat in Minnesota. Still, incumbent Rep. Gil Gutknecht didn’t seem overly worried as he walked the same parade route earlier this month.

``The people here in Albert Lea are very good to me. They voted for me for six times,″ Gutknecht said. ``It will take a real strong message for them to say, ’You know, I think we better fire Gil.‴

Walz has about $250,000 for his campaign, and Gutknecht holds a 3-to-1 advantage in fundraising.

The district is rural and farm-oriented, stretching across southern Minnesota from the border with South Dakota to the Mississippi River. Gutknecht, chairman of a House Agriculture subcommittee, hasn’t had to break a sweat in his most recent campaigns, winning with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2004.

This year could be different. The Iraq war, rising gasoline prices and other national concerns weigh on the party in power _ Republicans. President Bush won the district with 51 percent of the 2004 vote, but sections, including Albert Lea, went for Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

Among the shifts in this traditionally blue-collar district are more people settling in cities such as Rochester, once a Republican stronghold. Pockets of immigrants have taken jobs on farms and in food-processing plants, changing the face of an area where almost a third of the population claims German roots.

Horner said Walz could benefit from voters’ misgivings about Bush more than any other challenger among Minnesota Democrats. The GOP holds half of Minnesota’s eight House seats.

``He comes across pretty well,″ said Horner, who saw Walz address the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor convention last month. ``He has the ability to really get people up off their feet.″

By his account, Walz became active in politics after being stopped, questioned and threatened with detainment as he tried to enter a Bush rally in 2004. Campaign workers turned away two of his students _ one of whom had a Kerry sticker on his wallet _ and Walz attended only after he promised to behave.

He said that experience distilled his dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and prompted his congressional bid. He criticized the GOP-controlled Congress _ and Gutknecht _ for failing to act as a check on Bush.

``He’s the cog in the machine that lets the things go by,″ Walz said of Gutknecht.

Walz, 42, who served in the Army National Guard from 1981-2005, has criticized Gutknecht on Iraq, saying the incumbent has ignored the war and has rarely spoken about it on the House floor.

Walz said 300 to 400 National Guard soldiers he helped train are now serving in Iraq, along with about half a dozen of his former students at Mankato West High School. He said he wants a national discussion about what to do in Iraq, and favors moving U.S. troops to Kuwait so a regional security force can take over in Iraq.

Gutknecht said he talks about the war regularly on his radio show, and that part of Congress’ job is to keep the pressure on Iraqis to assume their own security. He added that the United States has an obligation to stabilize Iraq before leaving.

Iraq seemed a world away at the parade, marked by old-time bands and Shriners in fezzes. The mood shifted when a group of soldiers walked by holding the edges of a massive American flag.

``We can’t cut and run,″ said Art Ludtke, a retiree who served in the Navy during World War II and supports Gutknecht. ``That’s the way I felt about World War II and I feel the same way now.″

Across the street, Mary and Les Tufte warmed up to Walz after hearing his pitch. They said their top concerns include Social Security, property taxes, illegal immigration and the economy.

``I support the boys, but not the war,″ said Mary Tufte, a retired retail manager.


On the Net:

Tim Walz: http://www.timwalz.org/

Gil Gutknecht: http://www.gilg.org/

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