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Compared with the maiden run for Congress, Keith Ellison's reelection bid this year is shaping up as a walk in the park.

Ellison was a legislator little known outside north Minneapolis in 2006 when Martin Sabo announced that he wouldn't seek a 15th term representing the city and nearby suburbs in the Fifth Congressional District.

Ellison first had to best 10 other DFLers who wanted to run as the party's standardbearer. Three of them contested his DFL endorsement in a primary.

Then revelations about unpaid parking tickets and late campaign filings dogged him. Independence Party and Republican challengers campaigned vigorously against him, and he was forced to defend himself against charges that he had extremist ties.

He won, but with the smallest share of district votes a DFLer had received in decades.

Now Ellison is running for reelection largely free of the kind of obstacles and missteps that troubled him in 2006. He has challengers from other parties. While they've vigorously criticized his liberal voting record, they haven't raised the money for high-profile challenges.

"He's spending all of his time on other races," said Nikki Carlson, Hennepin County DFL chair.

Barb Davis White, a minister with the Republican endorsement, at last report hadn't raised even one-third of the war chest that her predecessor mustered against Ellison two years ago. Independence Party candidate William McGaughey, a landlord who is a frequent candidate, hadn't raised enough to file federal campaign finance reports.

On the issues

Nonetheless, there are sharp differences on issues when the candidates debate, especially between Ellison and Davis White.

He's for single-payer health insurance; she wants to do away with health maintenance organizations and have doctors compete for patients on service and price.

He's for mandating higher vehicle gas economy and incentives for wind and solar power; she wants to build 600 nuclear power plants and says the government is trying to nationalize the oil industry.

He supported the financial bailout legislation, saying it would keep Wall Street's meltdown from paralyzing Main Street; she said the bill was loaded with special-interest provisions and the financial industry didn't need government intervention.

In other words, she's as conservative a Republican as he's a liberal. Her literature calls Ellison "a giant who has lost his shadow." Ellison was a historic figure, she concedes by way of explanation, when he was elected as the state's first black congressman and the first Muslim to sit in Congress.

But he's not delivering what people want -- jobs -- she charges. "I talk to people every day who are not happy," said in an interview. "They're not interested in what the government wants to trickle down to them."

For Davis White, government is the problem with much of what ails the nation, overregulating business and overtaxing people.

"We're going to have to decide [in] this election how badly do we want this country or do we want to give this country to the United States government?" she told a North Side audience.

Ellison said he has approached government as a tool for ensuring civil rights, broadening the middle class and helping local projects. He claims credit for helping to land federal aid for the new Interstate 35W bridge, light-rail and commuter-rail projects in the district, and a grant for gunshot-locating technology for Minneapolis.

He has spent considerable legislative time on foreclosure issues that dominate in his North Side base. McGaughey also lives there, and Davis White graduated from high school there, although she now lives in northeast Minneapolis.

Few flare-ups

In his first term Ellison largely has avoided the gaffes that tripped him up during his maiden congressional run. He kicked up dust among some conservatives when he was sworn in with a Qur'an but also was used as a representative to the Middle East by the Bush administration because of his Muslim faith.

There was a short-lived flare-up over his 2007 remarks comparing the administration's national security response to the Sept. 11 attacks to the seizure of new powers by Nazis after the Reichstag fire.

Davis White's ability to make inroads against Ellison in the heavily DFL district has been hampered by her lack of money. Her campaign reported raising just $43,437 going into the campaign's final month. He's raised more than 20 times as much.

But her campaign's paltry treasury didn't stop Davis White from spending more than $400 in campaign funds at a Minneapolis hair and wig shop on hair extensions. "I have pictures to take. I have to be at places," she said in explaining why that was a campaign expense.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438