Democrat Helped By 3-Way Race For Minn. Governor

In Minnesota, three men are vying to replace outgoing GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Conservatives are torn between the Republican nominee and an independent challenger. So Democrats hope former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton will lead their party to its first term in the governor's mansion in nearly a quarter century.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go next to Minnesota, where three men are vying to replace outgoing Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty in next week's election.

Conservatives are torn between the Republican nominee and an independent challenger.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Democrats are hoping former Senator Mark Dayton can lead their party back to the governor's mansion. NPR's David Welna reports from St. Paul, where President Obama campaigned this weekend.

DAVID WELNA: About 7,000 of Democrat Mark Dayton's supporters flocked to a field house Saturday on the campus of the University of Minnesota. They were there to hear President Obama heap praise on the man they hope will be Minnesota's next governor.

President BARACK OBAMA: I served with Mark in the United States Senate, and...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: ...and so I know this man. And I know that he has been fighting for the people of this state his entire career. You know what kind of leader he is.

WELNA: But what kind of leader Dayton's been remains an open question. Near the end of his one-Senate term four years ago, Dayton acknowledged he was not well-suited to being a senator. The day after his nomination for the governorship, a Republican attack ad reminded Minnesota voters why many had lost confidence in Dayton.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: He was absolutely, positively one of the worst senators in America, and Mark Dayton agreed. Dayton gave himself a failing grade. Time magazine called Dayton erratic after he closed his office during a non-existent terrorist threat.

WELNA: Late last year, Dayton revealed he had struggled with depression since he was a teenager. A recovering alcoholic, Dayton admitted he'd gone on a drinking binge near the end of his Senate career that landed him in a Minnesota rehab center.

In an interview, Dayton says he's stayed sober since, and has no regrets about bearing his past to the public.

Mr. MARK DAYTON (Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate, Minnesota): Full disclosure is usually the best in public life, and, you know, it just really hasn't been an issue for Minnesotans. If anything, I've gotten, you know, word from so many people that I've encountered who have asked me to - you know, shared with me their experiences and thanked me for, you know, being candid.

WELNA: Dayton is also heir to a fortune from a well-known department store chain that bore his family's name. As one of the privileged, he says he knows Minnesota's wealthy had it too easy under Republican rule.

He's promised to address a nearly $6 billion budget shortfall in the state, not with the painful spending cuts that Governor Pawlenty's made, but by raising taxes on the rich. Ninety-year-old Conway Marvin of Zumbrota, Minnesota calls Dayton an honest man.

Mr. CONWAY MARVIN (Zumbrota, Minnesota): And he's got the courage to say that we're going to have to raise taxes somewhere in order to get out of this hump we're in. The others are too damn yellow to do it.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Mr. TOM EMMER (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, Minnesota): Hi, how are you? Yeah. Sorry, don't want to interrupt you. How are you doing? Good to see you.

WELNA: At the Rochester, Minnesota Golf & Country Club, Republican Gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer works the room before a candidate debate. Emmer is the favorite of Tea Party activists, and got a key endorsement from Sarah Palin the day before he won the primary.

Unlike Dayton, Emmer vows he'll cut state spending rather than raise taxes.

Mr. EMMER: Here's what I'm for: I'm for government should live within it means.

WELNA: Emmer's also had issues with alcohol, including two drunk driving arrests, which he's called mistakes.

Some big-name Republicans have campaigned here for him, but not Sarah Palin. Hamline University political scientist David Schultz says she probably would not help Emmer much.

Professor DAVID SCHULTZ (Political Scientist, Hamline University): Palin comes in if you need to get your basics cited. Emmer already has his basics cited. That's the angry, white male vote this year. They're hot. They're bothered. They have the anger and the passion. They're going to come out to vote.

WELNA: Meanwhile, former Republican Tom Horner is running as an independent. He's been endorsed by two former GOP governors and many major newspapers. And he says Emmer is not the kind of Republican Minnesota needs.

Mr. TOM HORNER (Independent Gubernatorial Candidate, Minnesota): You see a person who not just is conservative, but represents a very narrow slice of far-right conservatism where it is not just smaller government, but anti-government.

WELNA: Horner is running a distant third in the polls. University of Minnesota political analyst Kathryn Pearson says he's not well-known, but that both Dayton and Emmer are seen as representing their parties' extremes.

Ms. KATHRYN PEARSON (Political Analyst, University of Minnesota): There is some dissatisfaction, to some extent, with all three of the candidates.

WELNA: But for now, at least, polls indicate the three-way split is giving Democrat Dayton the best shot at finishing first.

David Welna, NPR News, St. Paul, Minnesota

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