Mike McFadden leaned his sturdy frame over the front counter of the Shady Drive Inn as the owner aired the same frustrations with political gridlock that some of her regular customers grumble about.
Then she asked the Senate candidate point-blank: "What party are you affiliated with?" McFadden tiptoed into the answer: "Well, I'm an American first," he said. "But I'm a Republican."
His comment reflects the delicate challenge facing the GOP in its bid to topple Democratic Sen. Al Franken in November. Republicans in Minnesota have suffered 13 defeats in 14 statewide races over the last decade, often after nominating staunchly conservative candidates.
So McFadden is embracing a lot of ideas that many fellow Republicans are fighting fervently to kill. He supports an immigration overhaul with a path to citizenship. He says President Barack Obama's health care law must go, but he wants a replacement that replicates some of its goals.
The former investment banker also opposed last fall's federal government shutdown and often laments "extreme partisanship." He's even gone so far as to cast himself as "a right-center Amy Klobuchar," a reference to Minnesota's popular two-term Democratic senator known for working across the aisle.
Democrats are already scrutinizing McFadden's investment banking background in the same way the national party took on Mitt Romney's past business dealings in 2012. And they've pounced on his nuanced reaction to the Supreme Court's decision that lets companies deny contraception coverage on religious grounds, a ruling he praised while calling for over-the-counter birth control.
Franken's razor-thin victory in 2008 makes him a tantalizing target in the GOP's efforts to gain the six seats needed to take control of the Senate.
For now, Franken has escaped the barrage of negative ads aired by outside groups that have put red-state Democratic incumbents under siege, including Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Arkansas' Mark Pryor and North Carolina's Kay Hagan.
Franken's own television ads — more than $100,000 worth per week since early May — feature the incumbent or citizens he's helped talking matter-of-factly about his efforts to connect factories with skilled workers, regulate compound pharmacies or tighten Wall Street lending practices.
"When I get back to Washington, I'm going to keep working to do even more, and that's the job. It's not about winning an argument. It's not about proving a point. It's not about getting on TV," Franken said while accepting his party's backing for another term.
Franken has also focused on the ground game, building a robust team of organizers and volunteers to boost turnout.
After all, he owes his first term to just 312 people — the final vote margin between him and then-GOP Sen. Norm Coleman after a recount and long court battle. In that race, nastiness between Franken, Coleman and their allies — including bawdy material dredged up from Franken's "Saturday Night Live" days — helped push 15 percent of voters to a third-party candidate.
McFadden, a political newcomer who is heavily favored in next month's Republican primary, said voters won't see him dive far into Franken's past. But he's battering Franken as being too close to Obama and to the problem-plagued health care law the senator was pivotal in enacting.
Whether that's a winning argument is murky, as McFadden found out when he struck up a conversation with the owner of Kat's Hog Heaven, a southern Minnesota barbecue joint where even the cheeseburgers are made of pork.
"Obamacare is the best thing the government has ever done to me," self-described fiscal conservative and independent voter Bill Stephan told McFadden, describing a new medical plan that saves him thousands and enabled him to quit a second job. "And I didn't necessarily feel like that until I knew how it worked."
The candidate politely nodded before interjecting, "I'm as upset with my party, the Republican Party, as I am with the Democratic Party because we have not participated in the debate."
He says Republicans can't just vow to scrap the law without offering alternate ways to expand insurance access and preserve guarantees that people with preexisting medical conditions qualify for coverage.
McFadden's chief competition in the Aug. 12 primary is eight-term state Rep. Jim Abeler, who travels to campaign stops in an old ambulance and argues his experience gives him an edge over McFadden despite being outspent.
"I'm convinced someone should go there who knows what to do," Abeler said.
McFadden's early tack toward moderates has dampened enthusiasm in Minnesota's tea party quarters.
Jake Duesenberg, a coordinator with the Minnesota Tea Party Alliance, said he's not convinced McFadden would fight hard enough to prevent new gun restrictions, ditch the health law and curtail government surveillance.
"A guy with very little substance on issues doesn't look good to people who care about principles," Duesenberg said. "He's going to be that unappealing guy most people don't believe in."
Some prominent Washington figures have placed early bets on McFadden, who has raised about $4 million to date. He scooped up more than $115,000 from political action committees associated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, Arizona Sen. John McCain and others.
"There's plenty of time in this race," said former Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who held the same Minnesota seat until plucky Democratic challenger Paul Wellstone upset him in 1990. "My campaign at this juncture was not thought to be in any danger whatsoever."
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