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With Biden By His Side, Minnesota Democrat Mines For Blue-Collar Vote


We are getting deep into fall, which is a perfect season to head north. At least it is for Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled to northern Minnesota. His purpose yesterday was politics. He is supporting a Democrat trying to hang on to support among more culturally conservative blue-collar voters. The Democrat is in the Eighth District in Minnesota, running in a year when President Obama's popularity is low. Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Biden was in the small town of Hibbing, Minnesota, on behalf of Congressman Rick Nolan. He was here where the roads wind in the stands of tall red pines and birch trees and near the deep pits, where iron is still mined. Trucks piled high with fresh-cut timber rumble past. Hibbing is also known as the hometown of an iconic American artist who sang about this part of the world.


BOB DYLAN: (Singing) If you're traveling in the North country fire, where the winds get heavy on the borderline.

GONYEA: He made no mention of Dylan, but he did pay tribute to the town's generations of miners.


VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's more than a just a living; it's a culture. It's a community. It's about how you get married. It's about baptisms. It's about the way in which you honor people who've passed. It's a community.

GONYEA: It's important to note that this is a place with a long history of supporting Democrats, the DFL as they're known in Minnesota. President Obama carried the district twice. But a poll this week puts Nolan behind. Enter Joe Biden, in the kind of blue-collar place that is his sweet spot.


BIDEN: All we've got to do is say this is what we're for and that's what they're for, and let the people choose. Get out the vote. We cannot afford to lose this race. It's important.

GONYEA: Congressman Nolan says the choice between him and his Republican challenger Stewart Mills is clear. Mills's family owns a chain of stores that specialize in outdoor and hunting supplies, including guns. Democrats portray him as wealthy and out of touch. One TV spot has an actor playing Mills grilling lobster on his yacht. But yesterday, Nolan put it this way.


REPRESENTATIVE RICK NOLAN: At the end of the day, what it's really about is who you're for. Nobody cares about his wealth. You know, the Kennedys were wealthy. It's what you do with your wealth. And he seems to want to give more tax breaks to the super rich and billionaires, and then he's opposed to a minimum wage. So I think the rich and the wealthy are not paying their fair share.

GONYEA: Now meet Stewart Mills. At 42, he's 28 years younger than the incumbent. He wears his sandy brown hair shoulder length. It's parted down the middle and tucked behind his ears. There's been comparison to actor Brad Pitt, and strangers on the sidewalk sometimes ask the kinds of things celebrities hear. This was in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.



MILLS: Hi, good to see you, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You're shorter than I thought you'd be.

MILLS: You know, I hear that all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, she's saying that you're 5-foot, 8-inches.

MILLS: Five-foot, 7-and-a-half-inches.

GONYEA: Mills has never run for office before. He says his opponent is just another congressman too eager to spend and to over-regulate business. He also says Nolan's positions on limiting semi-automatic weapons are a threat to gun ownership. That's a big issue on the iron range.

MILLS: He misses the mark certainly on the Second Amendment. He's F-rated by the National Rifle Association. And more than anything, the fact that he thinks Obamacare is great shows how out of line and out of touch he is with our part of Minnesota.

GONYEA: On Wednesday, a gun owners group held a happy hour in downtown Duluth. Mills spoke. Fifty-eight-year-old Ted Dalgren says he's a conservative who has voted now and then for Democrats. He won't vote for Rick Nolan, adding, however, that he doesn't see the congressman as being as liberal as Obama. But he adds that doesn't really matter this election.

TED DALGREN: And some of his problem is just because he's associated with Obama and people are taking sides. And if they're seeing if a candidate has decided a majority or on some very hot-button issues with the Obama administration, then they're kind of siding against him.

GONYEA: So Republican Stewart Mills is hoping to tap into Obama discontent to win a district with deep democratic roots, while incumbent Rick Nolan needs to rally the iron range's blue-collar population, still a key part of the base that Democrats depend on in such places. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Hibbing, Minnesota.


PAVEMENT: (Singing) Darling, don't you go and cut your hair. Do you think it's going to make him change? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 23, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous headline incorrectly referred to Maine.