ST. PAUL (AP) -- Summer is the doldrums for politicians, a time for dry chicken dinners and vote-by-vote campaigning.
But things could soon get wild in the race for the 4th Congressional District seat, where a field of experienced politicians have lined up for a chance to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Bruce Vento. The primary election is Sept. 12.
The seat could be filled with Minnesota's first woman representative since Coya Knutson in 1954. The state's three main parties have all endorsed women.
The race could also give Congress a rare independent lawmaker and convert Gov. Jesse Ventura's 1998 victory into a genuine third-party trend.
Former Democrat Tom Foley joined the race in the final minutes as a Minnesota Independence Party candidate. One recent Republican-sponsored poll showed the former Ramsey County prosecutor has the most recognized name in the district.
But he isn't the only standout.
Among DFLers, state Sen. Steve Novak of New Brighton is an experienced lawmaker who is giving up his office and another good job to make the race.
Chris Coleman is a St. Paul City Council member with a blue-blooded political name. Cathie Hartnett is a reform-talking, funny businesswoman with long ties to the district. And the endorsed candidate, state Rep. Betty McCollum of North St. Paul, is a stay-on-message stalwart who has tapped into EMILY's List, a nationwide network of political donors who support abortion rights.
Among Republicans, state Sen. Linda Runbeck is a tax-cutter known for her solid conservative vote in the Legislature. Though she faces a challenge by Maryjane Reagan, she is positioned to coast into the general election.
Foley is running as a self-proclaimed "Minnesota maverick." If elected, the former Clinton administration official and Washington lobbyist for Ventura promises he will be the only true independent in Congress.
Two other House members claim to be independents, but one votes solidly with Democrats and the other with Republicans. "I think people are looking for something new, something different," Foley said.
He says he abandoned the DFL in part because of the "hostility" by "party elites" he ran into in his 1994 run for Senate. In what was dubbed the year of the woman, the party nominated Ann Wynia, who went on to lose to Republican Rod Grams.
Dean Barkley, who chaired Ventura's 1998 campaign and now serves in his administration, bolted from party protocol to endorse Foley over the party's endorsed candidate, Pam Ellison. "I think Tom's biggest battle is winning the primary," he said. "Because I think he's got an excellent chance of winning the general."
He will have to get past Ellison, however, who could foil his bid because of the vote mechanics. Primary voters will have to choose to vote either as Democrats, Republicans or Independence Party voters. Many of Foley's past supporters may stay with the DFL ballot.
On the Republican side, Runbeck has everything going for her except history.
With the help of money left over from a race for Congress in the 6th District in 1998, Runbeck had more money than any other candidate during the most recent federal report. And without a major primary challenge, she expects to enter the general election with far more cash than her competition.
Runbeck, who made a brief appearance on stage at the Republican National Convention, argues that Foley's candidacy could help her by splitting the DFL votes if he makes it to the general election.
Like Republicans nationwide, Runbeck is pledging this year to campaign among minority voters, particularly in St. Paul's large Hmong community. One potential fact that opponents may use against her: Though her Senate district includes part of Vento's district, Runbeck did not live in the 4th District until she moved into a Vadnais Heights townhouse in July.
The four DFL candidates, meanwhile, have had to struggle to distinguish themselves. There have been few public forums featuring all the candidates. At those where they have appeared together, the DFLers have vowed to pay attention to the same slate of issues: health care, education, protecting the environment and campaign finance reform.
Still, there will be a built-in reward for the winner. Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who wrested the House seat from decades of Republican control in 1948, said it remains the most reliably Democratic district in the state.
McCarthy says the thick candidate pool is a product of the "pressure building up" as a result of 24 years of rule by Vento, who has retired to battle cancer.
With no turnover in Minnesota's congressional delegation since 1994, there has been little opportunity for advancement for ambitious politicians.
McCarthy has endorsed Coleman, son of late former Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman. Most elected DFLers, including Vento and Sen. Paul Wellstone, have backed McCollum. Novak has won the endorsements of some key labor unions.
The Democrats plan major media blitzes in the final weeks before their primary. Hartnett is already moving to distinguish herself with $80,000 worth of humorous radio ads and lawn signs featuring bright red lips. The other candidates plan to follow shortly with ads on both radio and television.
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