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Minn. Candidate a Poster Boy for Democratic Hopes

The success so far of Ashwin Madia, left, symbolizes what Democrats hope to do: extend their territory farther from urban centers. With Middle America feeling the pinch of the economic crisis, it seems to be working in places such as Minnesota's 3rd Congressional District, which has been held by Republicans since 1960. A month ago, Republican state Rep. Erik Paulsen led the race.
The success so far of Ashwin Madia, left, symbolizes what Democrats hope to do: extend their territory farther from urban centers. With Middle America feeling the pinch of the economic crisis, it seems to be working in places such as Minnesota's 3rd Congressional District, which has been held by Republicans since 1960. A month ago, Republican state Rep. Erik Paulsen led the race. (By Jim Mone -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

MINNETONKA, Minn. -- On paper, it makes little sense that Democrat Ashwin Madia is running a close race for Congress in the Minneapolis suburbs. He is a 30-year-old political neophyte challenging a respected Republican statehouse leader for an open seat held by the GOP since 1960.

But Madia is an Iraq war veteran who has turned a combination of economic worry and demographic change into a serious chance of beating state Rep. Erik Paulsen in a closely watched bellwether for Democratic hopes of extending their reach in the suburbs.

Recent polling shows Madia slightly ahead, a reversal of Paulsen's own slim lead a month ago. A lead in a district long considered safe GOP territory typifies a year that looks increasingly likely to turn out big for Democrats in Congress.

Democrats have largely won in the inner suburbs like this one in recent years. They hope a favorable climate -- especially in districts where economic concerns and dissatisfaction with President Bush dominate -- will help them extend that success to outer suburbs, where they have also become more competitive.

Outer-suburban communities "may still be Republican, but some of them are much less Republican than they were, and some of them are outright Democratic," said Ruy Teixeira, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution who recently finished a study of battleground states. "These are the kinds of patterns you see all over."

Teixeira cited the Virginia suburbs, where the rise of Democrats in Fairfax County is finding an echo in Loudoun and Prince William counties. He also mentioned Arapahoe and Jefferson counties outside Denver, as well as Franklin County, Ohio, which includes Columbus.

As the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee studied the national map heading into the 2008 campaign cycle, strategists looked to shifts in 2006, where Democrats took nine largely suburban seats from Republicans -- including three near Philadelphia -- and two that combined urban and suburban populations.

This year, the DCCC is concentrating on 10 suburban districts around the country, including Minnesota's 3rd, as well as eight where the suburbs or exurbs are a central part of the mix. Party strategists said the country's economic crisis has shifted the electorate their way.

"We're seeing in the last three or four weeks a lot of these districts are becoming increasingly competitive," said a DCCC staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly, "whereas on the Democratic side, where races have been competitive, they've been competitive throughout."

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain would not discuss the wider trends. Asked for comment yesterday, he said, "Suburban voters will trend toward candidates that offer up real economic solutions, not more of the same failed tax-and-spend policies of the past."

The Paulsen-Madia race will determine who replaces Rep. Jim Ramstad, a moderate nine-term Republican. Paulsen seemed well-positioned with money and contacts -- Ramstad is his campaign chairman. A social conservative and a pragmatic, budget-balancing former Minnesota House majority leader, he is an understated business analyst at Minnesota-based Target Corp.

On the stump, Paulsen, 43, talks about his 14 years in the Minnesota legislature. He discusses his real-world professional career and the 11 countries he visited last year. He mentions his four daughters and his Sunday-morning soccer matches in the local Liberian community.


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