ST. PAUL, Minnesota -- As a U.S. senator, he gave himself a grade of "F." Time magazine called him a "blunderer" for closing his office for a month because of vague terrorism threats and listed him among the five worst senators
of 2006. Last year, the recovering alcoholic admitted
to a relapse and said he was being treated for depression.
Amid the rare glimmers
of hope for the majority party in what may be
a Republican tsunami Nov. 2, there may be no more unlikely candidate than Mark Dayton, the Democratic candidate for governor of Minnesota. The one-term senator, whose legacy in Washington included non-starter ideas like creating a Department of Peace and Nonviolence, is seeking to convince voters that the executive job here is a better fit because, "you can lead, and lead from Day 1."
In a state that elected a former wrestler
as governor, stranger things have happened.
Dayton, whose family's department store
s were the Macy's of Minneapolis before being subsumed into Target, holds a slight lead over Tom Emmer, a Republican state legislator, in most polls
. Independent Party candidate Tom Horner, a public relations executive, is running a strong but distant third, with 15 percent in the latest Rasmussen
The race to replace outgoing Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- in Iowa last week preparing for what he hopes may be his next job
-- is too close to call. But with Republicans favored to regain a majority
of governorships, Minnesota could once again demonstrate the "exceptionalism" that propelled the former pro wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura into office, said Eric Ostermeier, who writes the Smart Politics
blog for the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
If Dayton prevails, and Democrats retain control of the state Legislature as expected, the outcome could reverberate nationally. With a free hand in congressional redistricting following the 2010 Census, Dayton could help design "an unsympathetic map" to redraw the state's most famous Republican, Tea Party favorite Rep. Michelle Bachmann, out of a job, he said.
Political science professor David Schultz of Hamline University, where the candidates debated Saturday for the 23rd time, said Dayton may have figured out how to recreate the winning coalition that last gave Democrats the governor's mansion in 1986. He has combined union support, a female running mate
from the left-leaning Iron Range, Twin Cities liberals and seniors who fondly recall shopping at Dayton's.
He also is attracting moderates despite repeatedly quoting Minnesota's late liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone
, who died in a plane crash shortly before the 2002 election. "We all do better when we all do better," Dayton often says when explaining why he favors tax and spending policies that help the poor and working class.
Humphrey Institute Director Larry Jacobs said moderates are so turned off by the Tea Party movement that they are likely to "hold their nose" and vote for a liberal like Dayton if they think he has the best chance of defeating Emmer. He also notes new-found enthusiasm among all Democrats.
While Republicans nationwide may be more excited about this year's election, in Minnesota 83 percent of Democrats said in a recent Minnesota Public Radio News-Humphrey Institute poll
that they are engaged in the campaign. In August, only 57 percent said they were revved up.
"Very few people care about the fact that he didn't have a good Senate term," Schultz said.
The odds against Dayton remain high.
Ostermeier notes that that no U.S. senator -- let alone a one-term, self-described failure -- has been elected governor of Minnesota. Only three Democrats have been elected while the party held the White House, the last time in 1962. Oh, and there is that GOP wave thing.
An affable father of seven who was elected to the state Legislature in 2004, Emmer beat the party establishment's choice
a day after former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska endorsed the "hockey dad." Jacobs said Emmer is the most conservative gubernatorial candidate Minnesota -- a purple state that voted for Barack Obama -- has seen since World War II.
That helps explain why Emmer has been unable to expand his support beyond the one-third of voters who call themselves conservatives. It also points out the dilemma Republicans are facing in races nationwide since the rise of the Tea Party movement.
Emmer has spent much of his time shoring up his GOP base and avoiding venues where his small-government message might be questioned.
Dayton and Horner spoke in Duluth on Friday to non-profit executives concerned about cuts in health and human services spending. Emmer cited a scheduling conflict. He also turned down an invitation to speak to students at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota, whose budget he would slash if he were elected.
Emmer has opted for safer crowds, visiting local GOP groups or stopping by gatherings of the faithful, like last week's "Reclaiming America" rally put on by a conservative radio station. The headliner was Bachmann, whom Emmer called his "mentor."
Apart from ideology, Emmer's campaign has been roiled by headlines over drunken driving and underage drinking
involving himself, his son and two campaign staffers. There have been other gaffes, such as saying some waiters make more than $100,000 a year
while arguing that restaurant owners should be allowed to pay staff less than the minimum wage.
"He has run an absolutely horrid campaign," Schultz said. "Democrats have been able to paint him as out of touch, a fringe person with extremist views. He has yet to emerge from that."
Emmer in turn has tried to paint his millionaire opponent as the one lacking the common touch. During a give-and-take over government's role in helping students pay for college, Emmer shot a zinger Dayton's way.
"Senator, with all due respect, I don't know that you've ever had a loan," he said. "I did."
Dayton dismissed the barb, parrying back that the Republican wants to cut higher education spending by 15 percent.
Standing between the two as they sniped was Horner, the moderate in the middle.
Spoiler on Alert
Disgust with gridlock and polarized politics has made this the year of independents. At least six independents are waging serious campaigns for governor, most notably former Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. But no state warms to third-party candidates more than Minnesota, as 1998's surprise victory by Ventura showed.
Horner, a bespectacled former journalist who speaks with a slight lisp, is no Ventura. "He doesn't have the personality, the flamboyance," said Schultz. Instead, he compared him to another celebrity who preferred cardigans over tights. "He looks like Mr. Rogers," he said. "He doesn't excite people, but he is running on competence."
The next governor will need to know what he's doing to plug a projected budget gap of $5.8 billion in a sluggish economy and amid high unemployment. Emmer wants to cut taxes and reduce government spending. Dayton prefers to raise taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans and close tax loopholes.
Neither are "realistic solutions," Horner told Politics Daily during a stop in Duluth. "They are not even politically viable." The next day, he portrayed his rivals as unrepentant partisans who would continue government gridlock and accused them of running "bumper sticker" campaigns ripped from their party's playbooks.
Horner has proposed that Minnesota join the majority of states that have a sales tax clothing and services. Dayton has attacked the plan as hitting the middle class, and it isn't clear it would bring in enough
new revenue to make up the budget shortfall.
Yet the former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger is the kind of moderate Republican Minnesotans have long preferred, and he hopes many who agree with him that Palin's brand of conservatism is too extreme will come to his aid.
Last week, 13 former GOP state legislators
did, endorsing Horner over Emmer. That prompted the head of the state GOP to compare them
to a notorious Norwegian Nazi collaborator
, saying, "There's a special place in hell for these quislings
Horner was "appalled" at the comparison to the infamous traitor and demanded an apology to World War II veterans
. But Emmer brushed it off, pointing out Vice President Joe Biden's words at a Democratic fundraiser where he said he'd "strangle
" the next Republican who berated him about balancing the federal budget.
The tempest may have been the best thing to happen to Horner's fundraising.
It also gladdened Democrats counting on a rift in Republican ranks to make Dayton the fourth governor in a row
to be elected by less than a majority of the state's voters. Horner's potential as a spoiler has drawn barbs from both parties, but so far polls show he is mostly drawing GOP moderates turned off by Emmer's conservatism. He will need moderate Democrats to come his way to have a shot.
"I need to break through," Horner acknowledged, saying the next week will be crucial.
Schultz doubts there is enough time. "Unless something happens and he deals a knockout blow, I don't see him going anywhere," he said. "He had a window of opportunity that is rapidly starting to close."