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Wetterling jumps into broader political arena in Congress bid
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Patty Wetterling, 54, is seeking the Democratic nomination in hopes of unseating Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy in Minnesota's 6th District. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Patty Wetterling made it official Tuesday, announcing her candidacy for Minnesota's 6th Congressional district. She'll run as a Democrat against incumbent Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy. Tragedy has given Patty Wetterling tremendous name recognition. In 1989, her son Jacob was abducted at gunpoint near his St. Joseph home, and he's been missing ever since. Wetterling has spent 14 years pushing for state and national legislation to deal with violence against children. Now Wetterling will need to convince people her candidacy is about more than one issue.

St. Cloud, Minn. — Patty Wetterling was forced into the spotlight after her son Jacob was abducted in 1989. She's well known to Minnesotans, and to many people across the country. She's earned respect for what she's been through and how she's dealt with it.

But voters in Minnesota's 6th district want to know more about Wetterling. As an advocate for missing children, does she have the skills and experience it takes to represent the district in Congress?

At Kay's Kitchen in Wetterling's central Minnesota hometown of St. Joseph, it's time for morning coffe.

St. Joseph resident Jerry Baggenstoss says Wetterling's life has prepared her for Congress.

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Image Opinions at the coffee shop

"She should be recognized for everything she did already. She did a good job with what she's doing," says Baggenstoss. "Give her a chance -- I'm sure she could do better with the rest of it."

Another local resident, Esther Reischle, respects Wetterling's work on behalf of missing children, but says there's more than one issue to deal with in Washington.

"There's so many issues out there, not just children, and I don't know how she is with all of that," says Reischle.

People close to Wetterling don't think her advocacy work has tied her to just one cause.

State Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis, has worked with Wetterling on several pieces of legislation since Jacob's abduction. Ranum says Wetterling's expertise can translate to a wide range of issues important to everyone.

"The kinds of things she's been involved in are not just one issue. The criminal justice system and services for victims,," says Ranum. "Public safety is the No. 1 responsibility for government, many would argue."

Dan Carle is a friend and supporter of Wetterling. Carle says he and his wife became friends with the Wetterlings about four years before Jacob was abducted. It brought the two families even closer.

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Image Dan Carle

"We've been kind of hanging out together ever since. She gets to cry on my shoulder, and occasionally I get to cry on hers," Carle says. Carle says Wetterling needs to convince voters she's ready to go to Washington. He hopes the skills she's developed will help her win the voters' trust.

"I have encouraged her to take her message clearly to the people that she will represent, allowing them to recognize that she has the capacity and the maturity to analyze these issues in a way that will be effective in terms of the solution," Carle says.

Patty Wetterling used her campaign announcement Tuesday to outline her positions on some hot political issues.

Wetterling believes the U.S. must help rebuild Iraq. However, she sees war as a failure of diplomatic efforts.

Wetterling says she favors abortion rights, but is opposed to late-term abortions. She also says she opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages.

On taxes, Wetterling says she's undecided on whether or not she'd vote to roll back President Bush's recent tax cuts.

Wetterling doesn't see her concentration on children's issues over the years as a problem for her campaign.

"What else could the people of the 6th district possibly have in mind when they'd send me to Washington?" Wetterling says. "There's not one single issue debated in Congress that does not affect our children."

I think that she will probably be seen pretty much as a non-politician. And that, in this particular district, may well be a pretty good advantage.
- Bob Webber, St. John's University political scientist

St. John's University political science professor Bob Webber says Minnesota's 6th District race might have been a cakewalk for incumbent Republican Mark Kennedy. Now with Wetterling in the race, he says it's arguably up for grabs.

"Mark Kennedy now has an opponent who has a lot of name identification. I don't think anyone knows how she'll be as a candidate, how she'll hold up under campaign scrutiny -- but she certainly is a very viable contender," says Webber.

Having such a well-known challenger will force Kennedy to spend more time and money on his House re-election effort. He has more than $600,000 in his campaign war chest. The speculation is that, beyond his 2004 House race, Kennedy has his eyes on the 2006 U.S. Senate race for the the seat currently held by DFLer Mark Dayton.

Kennedy says he doesn't plan to change his re-election strategy with Wetterling's entry into the race.

"I'm really focused on doing the job that the voters sent me to do, and bringing that record before them in the upcomming election," Kennedy says.

Minnesota's 6th Congressional district was reconfigured two years ago. It stretches from the metro area's southeast suburbs of Woodbury and Afton, up through the northern suburbs, and then to the west past St. Cloud.

Webber says the 6th has more Republicans than Democrats. But he says what really sets it apart from Minnesota's other congressional districts is its high number of independent voters. Webber estimates 20 percent of 6th District voters swing back and forth between political parties.

He says Wetterling may have more luck attracting independents than Kennedy.

"I think that she will probably be seen pretty much as a non-politician. And that, in this particular district, may well be a pretty good advantage," says Webber. "Especially if you have a fairly significant number of Jesse Ventura voters, the kind of people who are turned off by politicians. Mark Kennedy, by contrast, would be kind of a mainstream Republican, a George Bush Republican."

Republicans maintain the 6th is solid GOP territory. Amy Walter, who covers the House for the Cook Political Report, says Wetterling's name recognition unquestionably gives her a big boost.

Walter says Wetterling's challenge will be attaching a political agenda to her name that relates to her experience -- and contrasts with what Kennedy has worked for in Congress.

"What makes candidates with good name ID good candidates -- as opposed to just good name ID folks on a ballot -- is the fact that they can actually contrast their position on the issue that made them so well known with that of the incumbent," Walter says. "How does she (Wetterling) go about contrasting herself with Kennedy and talking about issues where they differ, that may not be the issues that she actually has been working on for all these years."

Although Kennedy's re-election campaign is flush with money, political observers say Wetterling is in a good position to raise the roughly $750,000 some say she'll need to take on Kennedy.

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