ST. PAUL - U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson provided Republicans an opening to attack him when he said he does not hold town hall meetings in his western Minnesota district because many constituents believe the Bush administration helped carry out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Twenty-five percent of my people believe the Pentagon and (then-Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld were responsible for taking the twin towers down," Politico Monday quoted Democrat Peterson as saying. "That's why I don't do town meetings."
The comment thrilled Minnesota Republicans, who have struggled against Peterson. State GOP state Chairman Tony Sutton called it "really bizarre," but said the comment should help the GOP recruit candidates to run against Peterson.
The veteran congressmen said his constituents know him and know they can reach him when needed.
"If anyone was offended by my off-handed comment I sincerely apologize," Peterson said in a statement. "I certainly wasn't trying to make fun of anyone. What I was talking about was simply that there are the people in Minnesota's 7th district who have called me and talked to me about this question.
"The other point I was trying to make is that there are people in the 7th district who freely identify themselves as outside the mainstream, on the left and on the right, who try to hijack public forums like town hall meetings. That's why I do my district meetings on specific topics and in a variety of forums."
The next election is more than 15 months away, but Sutton said there is no doubt Monday's quote will energize western Minnesota Republicans.
"I have got a feeling it is going to be a lot better," Sutton said of candidate recruitment. "I think Collin Peterson has gotten by and says, 'ah, shucks, I am one of you'" when in his 7th Congressional District, but then votes with liberals in Washington. Sutton said Republicans have done a poor job of telling voters that in the past, but "we are not going to let it happen again,"
Some Republicans already are considering challenging Peterson, the GOP chairman said.
Politico reports that conspiracy theorists, such as those who tie the Bush administration to terrorists, sometimes dominate congressmen's public meetings.
Peterson's quote was deep in a story about how members of Congress deal with people who think President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, which would make him ineligible to be president (his birth certificate says he was born in Hawaii).
Republicans have not been successful at getting anything negative to stick to Peterson, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. He often has opposed Democratic proposals and says he works behind the scenes to change them to be more favorable to his farmer-heavy district that stretches from Canada almost to the Iowa border.
Peterson has served in the U.S. House since 1990, and since 1996 he has received 65 percent to 68 percent of the vote in his elections every two years.