Sept. 26, 2012 -- Less than a year ago, Rep. Michele Bachmann was traveling the country, making her case to be the Republican Party's presidential nominee. Today, six weeks out from that long-awaited election, she's caught in an unexpectedly tight race to keep her seat in Congress.
Bachmann's challenger, Minnesota hotel magnate Jim Graves, 58, entered the fray in early April, quickly rallying state Democrats to his side and, perhaps more importantly, convincing Independence Party leaders and candidates to stay out of the mix, putting as much as 10 percent of the electorate -- more than Bachmann's margin of victory in two of her three races -- back up for grabs.
"This district has the most independents in the state," Graves told ABC News. "So we went to the Independence Party and asked, 'Can you guys help us out a little bit?' Well they said, 'We like you, Graves, we'll support you.'"
Though he hasn't received an official endorsement from Minnesota's largest "third party," their decision to stand down, which Independence Party leader Mark Jenkins insists was made before Graves joined the race, has allowed the Democrat to focus exclusively on the Bachmann campaign.
"The primary exposed her DNA," Graves said. "She doesn't grasp the big picture and, in deference to her, she's never been in business. She goes after the bank bailouts, but is against Dodd-Frank and any new regulations."
He also believes Bachmann's divisive national political figure has complicated her standing in Minnesota's 6th district, which sits on top of the Twin Cities metro region like a crown. A recent poll commissioned by the Democrat shows Bachmann with a two-point lead (48-46 percent), within the margin of error.
In 2010, during the Tea Party surge, she won by nearly 13 points.
Graves cites a "downdraft" created by Bachmann's controversial letter-writing mission to remove alleged "Islamist" infiltrators from U.S. government positions as another development breaking in his favor.
"I think it was a ploy to raise money and bring out the base," he said. "Even her own party came out against her. Senator McCain, Speaker Boehner… fearmongering is not going to bring jobs to this economy."
The self-described fiscal moderate and social libertarian repeatedly linked Bachmann to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., the Republican vice presidential nominee.
"You can't play games or shadow dance like the Ryan budget does," Graves said. "You are not going to get a budget done on one side of the aisle."
Bachmann has been a staunch supporter of Ryan and his budget plans, which routinely pass down party lines in the house, then get tossed away without a look in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority.
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It's all added up to a closer race than anyone could have expected. In recent weeks, the Rothenberg Political Report shifted their characterization from "Safe Republican" to "Republican Favored."
But even with her opponent appearing to gain momentum, Bachmann will take comfort in the electorate's new demographics.
Redistricting done this year pushed urban areas east of St. Paul, with their Democratic-leaning voters, off Bachmann's map, while adding to the western suburbs where Republicans traditionally score big, boosting the incumbent's built-in advantages. Graves, meanwhile, is banking on big support from hometown St. Cloud, the district's largest city, and the estimated 27,000 college students eligible to vote in November.
The campaign has also retained a field director, Ray Hoover, who worked for President Obama's 2008 campaign, hoping to channel the president's vaunted, micro-targeting ground game.
Bachmann, a national figure who left the presidential race after finishing sixth in January's Republican caucuses, also benefits from a significant lead in the fundraising game. By mid-July, the MinnPost reported she had taken in nearly five times as much as the Democrat.
Her office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story, nor have they reported any internal polling numbers.
The question now for Graves, as the vote nears, is how much of his significant personal wealth he'll pour into the campaign. That figure ranged between $22 and $111 million according to House financial disclosure documents.
Graves wouldn't reveal a specific outlay, but did say he expected that 25-30 percent of his campaign expenses would come from his own pocket. If the race stays as close as his internal pollsters indicate, don't be surprised to see the candidate dig even deeper.