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Mark Kennedy jumps into Senate race
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In a brief speech to supporters, Kennedy touched on his pro-military positions and his support for changes in Social Security. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Sixth District Congressman Mark Kennedy is attempting to position himself as the GOP front-runner for next year's U.S. Senate race. Kennedy has been widely considered a likely contender for the seat currently held by DFLer Mark Dayton. Dayton announced earlier this week that he would not seek re-election. That decision prompted Kennedy to step out nearly two years before Election Day and become the first candidate of either party to officially announce his candidacy.

Watertown, Minn. — Kennedy earned a reputation as a shrewd and effective campaigner in 2000 when, against most expectations, he defeated incumbent DFLer David Minge in what was then the state's 2nd Congressional Distict in southwest Minnesota.

Two years later, following a redrawing of district boundaries, Kennedy found himself in the new 6th District, which arcs from the western metropolitan area through St. Cloud and back down to the St. Croix River Valley. Now, his ambitions reach statewide. Speaking in his hometown of Watertown, Kennedy says Mark Dayton's withdrawal from the race would have little effect in the end.

"Well, I intend to be the person -- and I'm confident I'm going to be the person -- that represents the party in the fall and represents Minnesota in 2007. And I don't know that it changes much. I'm looking forward to the race," he said.

In his announcement, Kennedy played on his small-town roots and identified himself with President George W. Bush. Kennedy has been a strong Bush ally who's supported the president on most key issues. Kennedy noted his own emphasis on military funding, low taxes, and what he called the values of "life, marriage and faith."

We need to replace Washington values with Minnesota family values.
- Mark Kennedy

Top Republicans have been advertising Kennedy as the likely front-runner for the party's nomination. State Party chair Ron Eibensteiner, earlier this week, predicted the ranks would soon close around Kennedy. And GOP Sen. Norm Coleman has given a nod to Kennedy. Kennedy himself says he expects to be the party's nominee.

"I'm very pleased to have Senator Coleman's support, and I'm hoping that you'll see many more people expressing their support in the future, and I think unifying the party gives us the best opportunity to make sure that we reclaim this seat in 2006," he said.

Kennedy says he'll abide by the party's endorsement. So, too, will fellow Republican Rod Grams. Grams served one term in the Senate until his defeat by Dayton in 2000. He says he's now eager to return and continue the debate about budgets, Social Security and health care. Grams acknowledges the attempts to paint Kennedy as a presumed favorite, but he notes that even the filing period is a year and half away. He says an intra-party rivalry for the nomination isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"Contests can lead to healthy outcomes. And that is to make sure that everybody gets a chance to air their views and to create some excitement. So I don't see that any kind of a two-man race or three-man race or whatever it might be would be divisive," Grams said.

Republican 1st District Congressman Gil Gutknecht is also mulling a bid. Gutknecht, who represents Minnesota's southern tier, wasn't available to comment, but a spokesman says he remains open to entering the race.

Among other prominent Republicans, Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer has said she's NOT interested in the Senate seat and a Kennedy aide says businessman Brian Sullivan also indicated he'll stay out of the race.

Kennedy's early announcement, however, wasn't just stirring the GOP pot. Democrats were quick to criticize him as a presidential lackey. And DFL State Party Chair Mike Erlandson says Kennedy has a history of negative campaigning that Minnesotans will reject.

"Mark Kennedy is not somebody that is really independent as most Minnesota voters tend to like for our statewide offices. He voted 97 percent of the time with President George W. Bush who was just defeated by three-and-a-half points in Minnesota," Erlandson said.

The DFL side of the ledger is murkier even than the Republican roster. Democrats are still pondering the political void created by Dayton's decision. Top prospects, however, include Minneapolis attorney Mike Ciresi, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, 4th District Congresswoman Betty McCollum, state Sen. Steve Kelley, former Congressman Bill Luther, and Erlandson himself. Also considering a bid is missing children's advocate Patty Wetterling, who Kennedy defeated in last year's congressional campaign.

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