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Minnesota Race Down to the Wire

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In a race that once featured more than a dozen candidates and still sports eight, three Democrats have emerged as the leaders in the battle to replace Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.) and likely will slug it out to a photo-finish Tuesday.

The Democratic nomination for the Minneapolis-based 5th district is basically the whole enchilada as the district preferred Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) over President Bush 71 percent to 28 percent in 2004.

With an open seat on the line — Sabo is retiring after serving 28 years — handicappers still are not hazarding a guess as to who will ultimately win.

Despite a string of revelations that included unpaid parking tickets and taxes, state Rep. Keith Ellison is still considered a top contender, thanks largely to his endorsement by the state party earlier this year.

Mike Erlandson, who has been Sabo’s chief of staff for the past 14 years, is right there with him as is state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge. Minneapolis City Council President Paul Ostrow also may be a factor.

Each candidate brings a different asset to the table.

Erlandson is the experienced insider who has Sabo’s blessing and help. Junge is the only woman in the race, hails from the suburbs and is backed by EMILY’s List. Ellison is the party candidate who has weathered a storm of bad press but seems to be rebounding.

“Erlandson is the experienced insider but has also taken defense contractor money” — something highly unpopular with a Democratic base opposed to the Iraq War, explained one Democratic insider from the Gopher State who did not want to be named.

“Ember is the experienced legislator but a lot of her money is coming from Republicans,” the source continued. “Keith is the endorsed candidate but has all this stuff in his past that makes people uncomfortable.”

Junge said the makeup of the primary electorate works in her favor.

“Fifty-eight percent of the primary voters are women. I am the only woman in the race; 42 percent are suburban. I am the only suburban candidate in the race; a good many are seniors. I have a long history with seniors as a state Senator,” she said.

“I don’t think we could be in a better position,” she said. “I just think it’s all coming together right now.”

All three camps were upbeat about their prospects.

“I think Keith is in a very strong position,” said Brian Melendez, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic Party. “It is one of the most progressive districts in the county. He is the most in tune with the district.”

“I think there has been a lot of dirt thrown at Keith unfairly,” Melendez continued, noting that Ellison has not retaliated in kind — “voters will reward him for that,” he predicted.

The campaign manager for Ostrow admitted last week that he peddled a particularly nasty story about Ellison to the media and resigned as a result. Ostrow subsequently made his wife, Julie Mattson Ostrow, campaign manager for the remainder of the race.

Erlandson said the outcome is still up in the air.

“There’s no question that all three of us are still in a position to come out in first place ... although I think in the end the battle is probably more between myself and Keith Ellison,” he said.

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