`Durenberger Republican' vs. Humphrey Democrat in Minnesota. A popular liberal GOP senator faces the son of a liberal Democratic hero

Much of this small farming community was in Del's Caf'e nursing their coffee cups in a tableau reminiscent of Garrison Keillor's mythical Minnesota hamlet of Lake Wobegone. Only dentist Robert Wright was out and about on the town's main drag, painting the front door of his office on a recent Saturday afternoon while speaking of the United States Senate race.

``Dave Durenberger, he seems to have done a pretty good job,'' Dr. Wright said. Then he thought a moment and added, ``If he doesn't, I'll tell him.''

Such voter independence makes this state's Senate race a barometer of sorts for politics in the post-Reagan era.

Senator Durenberger, an Independent-Republican, is running hard for reelection against a Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate whose very name rings the bells of old liberal causes nationwide - Hubert Humphrey III.

When they met in the theater where ``A Prairie Home Companion'' was broadcast to answer questions from a panel of typical Minnesota citizens filling in for reporters, the debate could have been titled, ``Return to Lake Wobegone.''

Both are battling to adapt historic Minnesota values to an era of government by budget deficit.

But the Republican side seems to be winning.

New polls show Durenberger with an 11-to-15 percent lead and George Bush even having a shot at winning in what has sometimes been called a Scandinavian socialist state within the US.

The reality for Wright and other average Minnesotans is that, as with some Scandinavians overseas, issues such as the financial squeeze on the middle class and the drug problem take precedence over old labels.

Both Durenberger and state Attorney General ``Skip'' Humphrey seek to retool ideals of social welfare and justice to fit such concerns - even as they themselves are repackaged in an intense media campaign.

Durenberger is one of two GOP senators from the traditionally Democratic state, the direct successor to Humphrey's father's Senate seat.

As a self-professed ``Dave Durenberger Republican'' he was not always close to the Reagan administration, particularly on Central America.

Humphrey, who grew up listening to his father's hour-and-a-half speeches, has adapted to the brevity of modern media, while seeking to tie Durenberger to what the challenger calls ``the mess in Washington'' - debt, special interests, and increased military spending.

The senator, on the attack lately as well, often responds in the relaxed style of a veteran professor who knows there are no simple answers and that he may suffer in class because of it.

``All the reform I've engendered, people don't understand,'' says Durenberger, who has been active in welfare and health issues.

``If you want to tell the folks in the rural areas that they're getting paid less by medicare than folks in the big cities and blame it on Durenberger, you can get away with it. But it's not my fault.''

He likes to talk about ``generational equity'' and explains the national debt ``as a matter of values, not a checkbook issue; it's a matter of today who lives within their means and is responsible for their own actions.'' He advocates social programs with an ``earnings supplement'' approach, such as recently enacted welfare reform; he favors ``consumer choice'' policies such as tuition tax credits for parents wishing to send children to private schools; and he wants national health insurance with incentives for individual savings.

When asked in a recent debate whether America was slipping in its position in the world, Durenberger responded that the Constitution ensured the US role in the world. The nation had bounced back from worse times in the 1970s, because the Constitution was there all along to balance the relationship between individuals and government.

Hogwash, says Humphrey, who calls such talk ``Washington rhetoric.''

According to him, Minnesota needs a senator who will make the ``right choices'' within limited means, and he attacks Durenberger's votes for more military spending and freezes on medicare cost-of-living allowances.

Durenberger says such votes were needed to bring the Soviet Union to the arms-reduction bargaining table and to benefit the economy.

``The principles on which my father operated I think are just as solid today as they were when he was alive - being compassionate, investing wisely with our public resources,'' Humphrey says.

Humphrey calls for national health insurance and greater federal investment in education, but he sells social welfare programs as an economic investment in ``people resources.'' He also calls for an expanded war on drugs and says more taxes won't be needed to reduce federal red ink.

After questioning them at the debate, panelist Rose Harm-Davis said, ``I saw both candidates being very close in their viewpoints, very close.''

Humphrey's campaign has tried to make hay out of former Sen. Barry Goldwater's statement that Durenberger was a ``blabbermouth'' on secrets while chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Durenberger says he felt a need to be more open than some senators from what he terms ``cold war'' backgrounds. ``Lloyd Bentsen is to my right,'' chuckles Durenberger, who as a German Roman Catholic is also ethnically somewhat out of whack with his state's Scandinavian Protestant image.

The incumbent seems well liked by many Minnesotans despite earlier-publicized marital problems, but Humphrey tugs a cord in ``bringing Democrats back home.''

A union official says, however, ``I think most of the old Humphrey supporters are yesteryear.''

In Washington, everyone knows, a whole new political ballgame awaits any liberal senator from Lake Wobegone.

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