Governor candidates hit on themes in last debate

Published 9:01 am Monday, November 1, 2010

ST. PAUL (AP) — Debate No. 26 among the three men who want to be Minnesota governor served Sunday as a refresher on the themes that each want voters to remember as they go to the polls Tuesday.

Republican Tom Emmer, Democrat Mark Dayton and the Independence Party’s Tom Horner took a laid-back approach in their capstone meeting, with frontrunners Dayton and Emmer appearing extra guarded against a late misstep.

Instead, each circled back to their familiar positions during the hourlong debate broadcast statewide by Minnesota Public Radio, which hosted it at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater.

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Emmer repeatedly mentioned his plan to fix Minnesota’s budget by curbing spending and without raising taxes. He cast himself as the best custodian of a fragile economy while trying to frame Dayton as an enemy to small business — “those people you seem to want to drive out of this state,” Emmer said to Dayton.

Dayton reminded voters his “tax-the-rich” plan — a new upper bracket for the top 4 percent of income earners — is meant to stave off cutbacks to schools, local governments and colleges. Dayton said Emmer would keep “allowing the wealthiest people to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”

Horner focused on tone and said he is the only one who can ratchet down partisan acrimony at the Capitol. As Dayton and Emmer went back and forth over education, Horner passed it off as the “same kind of debate we’ve had for the last eight years. We need a new type of discussion for the next four years.”

Questions from the live audience took the three away from the budget. They were asked whether they’d put up state roadblocks to the new federal health care law.

Horner said there were “challenges, problems, weaknesses” to the new law but said Minnesota should try to leverage money in the initiative. Emmer called the law “a mistake” and referenced his legislation to let Minnesota opt out of federal laws state leaders don’t like. Dayton discounted “fear-mongering” about the policy and pointed to more popular provisions such as allowing dependents to stay on a parent’s insurance until age 26.

An undecided voter sought assurances that the next governor wouldn’t inject politics into the once-a-decade redistricting, which can create districts that give one party a clear advantage.

Horner and Dayton said they would try to move the process into an independent arena, either a special panel or by involving judges. Emmer would only say, “If I’m in the governor’s office, it will be fair absolutely.”

The three also reflected on their remarkable number of debates, an average of two per week since August. Emmer said he was humbled to be part of it as a legislator who went from relative obscurity to a statewide candidate. Dayton, a former senator, said the debates have been a “great antidote for 30-second commercials and seven-second soundbites.” Horner, a public relations consultant making his first bid for office, said the format allowed him to compete against better-funded foes.

Their finale had tough competition, though. It was held at the same time as a Minnesota Vikings football game, which on any Sunday is where most eyeballs are. Moderator Gary Eichten announced before the debate started that the Vikings led 7-0, drawing applause.

Republicans have won four of the last five gubernatorial elections in Minnesota, their only miss being Jesse Ventura’s 1998 upset win on a third-party ticket.

In the closing day, the candidates are all on the move across Minnesota.

Dayton will hop a plane for a flyaround to Duluth, Hibbing, Moorhead, Worthington and Rochester. He’ll close out at a rally in St. Paul.

Horner’s team is splitting into three buses for events in all corners of the state, some led by running mate Jim Mulder and others by former Sen. David Durenberger. They’ll converge for a Midway Stadium rally in St. Paul on Monday night.

Emmer plans to hit 19 cities in 25 hours, including eight stops with departing Gov. Tim Pawlenty. On WCCO-TV Sunday morning, Pawlenty downplayed polls that showed Dayton ahead in a year tailored for the GOP. He said it’s always a tough slog for Republicans running statewide.

“For Minnesota, for a Republican to be close or even tied that’s a good thing because it’s a blue state,” Pawlenty said.