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GOP Senate candidate: 'I think I can, I think I can'

Sweat dripping down his face in a hot convention hall, U.S. Senate candidate Kurt Bills greets Republicans during May's state party convention. DON DAVIS | BEMIDJI PIONEER

ST. PAUL - Kurt Bills considers himself "The Little Engine That Could."

Instead of the children's book version of a little locomotive delivering toys over a mountain while repeating "I think I can," Republican Bills is trying to deliver votes for his U.S. Senate campaign over a rugged and steep political path.

The first-term state representative and high school economics teacher from Rosemount said he needs to do the work almost by himself because the Minnesota Republican Party has so many financial problems that it cannot help him. So far, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has little presence in Minnesota, something else that could hurt GOP candidates.

The mountain Bills faces has many obstacles as he tries to beat U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in the Nov. 6 election. (He faces token opposition in the Aug. 14 primary election.)

One hurdle is financial. Klobuchar has raised $5.5 million for re-election; Bills had $65,000 at last report.

The Republican Party is in financial trouble, faces legal challenges and is divided between traditional Republicans and Ron Paul-for-president supporters.

Then there is Bills' lack of statewide name recognition. He has not even finished his first two-year term in the Legislature, where he has not been one of the most visible lawmakers.

In an interview, Bills seemed as determined as the children's book train engine. But he also is realistic.

"David vs. Goliath" is how Bills looks at the race.

Klobuchar crisscrossed the state long before her election six years ago to build support. Polls show the first-term senator is the state's most popular politician and she is a sought-after political speaker nationally who sometimes is mentioned as a future presidential candidate.

With little the party can do to help financially, and the Romney campaign so far deciding to mostly skip Minnesota, Bills said it feels like he is all by himself.

"We are out there running as hard as we can on our own," he said. "We have been working double time to overcome that; I should say quadruple time."

The party is providing help in some ways, such as sending emails to up to 70,000 people and recruiting volunteers.

Bills praises new GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge's work to recover from big debt, but the candidate realizes big-buck aid is not in the cards.

"We will be lean and we will be focused and we will not waste resources," Shortridge said.

The chairman would not be specific about the party's finances, but Republicans are paying off a $2 million debt. They face thousands more in penalties over campaign finance violations.

"The staff is a little smaller," Shortridge said, compared to other years. "In some cases, the budget is a little smaller. We are not going to be all things to all people."

Even so, he said, "we are going to get done the work we need to get done. ... Now we are spending money on things that win races."

Shortridge added: "Spend less, raise more is our mantra."

Bills Campaign Manager Mike Osskopp, a former state legislator and radio talk show host, said the campaign will fund some functions the party usually would.

"In the past, the party has taken care of a lot of things," Bills said.

Even if the state party lacks funds, the campaign and party are helping each other, the candidate added.

"Our campaign, I think, is helping to solidify what Chairman Shortridge is healing," Bills said.

He said his campaign is blending Paul supporters, tea party backers and traditional Republicans after obvious divisions at the party's May state convention.

Bills estimated that 70 percent of his time is spent raising money, with 30 percent in campaign activities such as walking in parades, a typical breakdown for candidates at this stage. That likely will change to 50-50 in mid-September.

His fundraisers range from one in Washington, D.C., with Paul and his son, Rand, to an ice cream social at his Rosemount home.

Funding the campaign began with $2,500 Bills took out of the family car account. On the way home from the state Republican convention, there may have been second thoughts about that when the family minivan quit. It since has been replaced without that $2,500.

The campaign has enough money to operate, Osskopp said. It has a dozen paid full-time workers, although at times they put in 18-hour days.

"We just have to ask more of people," Bills said.

And even if he spends much of his time asking for money, Bills has visited much of the state; from pines to sugar beet fields to bluffs, he said.

When Bills gets a chance to campaign, he said that he does not go after Klobuchar as a person. He calls her "nice."

However, Bills said, Minnesotans do not know she votes with liberal President Barack Obama in Washington and she has not taken on major issues such as the economy.

With her popularity, Bills said that he would ask her: "Why haven't you taken risks?"