ST. PAUL -- Mark Dayton, Tom Emmer and Tom Horner drew their record-setting debate series to a close where it all started in a Sunday governor's forum sounding a lot like their first one just after the Aug. 10 primary election.
The three had not changed their tunes in the last three months, but honed their delivery a bit. On Sunday, they reinforced their well-worn key talking points several times as Tuesday's election nears.
For Democrat Dayton, a former U.S. senator and department store heir, the message boiled down to one phrase, as it has throughout the campaign: "Tax the rich."
For Republican Emmer, a state representative from Delano, the take-home line was: "I am the only one who has put out a budget that balances the state budget within the revenues we are going to have."
Horner of the Independence Party, who sold his share in a public relations firm to run for governor, criticized Emmer for spending his six years as a lawmaker "fighting Democrats and Republicans" and Dayton for spending "year after year after year running for office, then one term and he is out."
Emmer and Dayton were cautious during the hour-long Minnesota Public Radio debate at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul and less confrontational than in a Friday night debate. Horner was more edgy, not surprising given his recent drop in the polls.
Moderator Gary Eichten asked the three how they mesh their policies with a recent poll that showed them to be at odds with voters.
The poll showed that two-thirds of Minnesotans would accept higher taxes. Emmer refuses to consider tax increases, and says his preference is cutting them.
Emmer said the wording of the poll question may have influenced those surveyed and said Minnesotans he talks to want to base a state budget on taxes and other revenues already expected to come in, not based on tax increases.
"Minnesotans want good government, they want efficient government," Emmer said.
The poll showed most Minnesotans want smaller government, and Eichten wondered how liberal Dayton would fit his bigger spending budget in with that idea.
"I'm not proposing expanding state government," Dayton said, but with 124,000 new Minnesotans and 20,000 more in state schools in the next two years, government must spend more to keep its services stable.
Dayton said that 88 percent of human services spending, mainly for health care, goes to the disabled and elderly, and Minnesotans do not want to trim that. And the state also realizes that education is vital to Minnesota's future, Dayton added, so that also should not be cut.
Another poll question showed resistance to Horner's plan to add the sales tax to clothes and some services. But the Independence candidate said that did not change his mind.
"What we really see is when Minnesotans see the money is going to be used for resources they really believe in, they will vote for tax reform," Horner said.
Before the debate, a few supporters held signs for Dayton and Emmer (and even fewer for Horner) just outside of the Fitzgerald.
Normally, intersections near the Fitzgerald are packed with sign-waving supporters before the debate, but campaign workers said they were not surprised at the lighter turnout, given the fact that there already had been 25 debates. And the Vikings were playing at the same time.
The debate ended 38 hours before the first of a projected 2.1 million Minnesotans begin casting ballots to determine who will win the job of fixing what most in the Capitol describe as a nearly $6 billion state budget deficit.
Most recent polls have shown Dayton and Emmer in a too-close-to-call race, with Horner losing ground. One poll showed Dayton ahead by a dozen points, but many observers dismissed it.
In other election news:
- Emmer has by far the most strenuous plan for today and early Tuesday. He will attend rallies in 19 cities in 25 hours.
- Dayton plans to fly around the state today, then rally Twin Cities supporters tonight. His last appearance is scheduled to begin at 10:01 p.m., as campaign staff hopes to get him on live television newscasts.
- Horner's campaign plans to have three buses traversing the state before a St. Paul Midway Stadium rally tonight. Horner will be on one bus, running mate Jim Mulder on the second and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger on the third.
- The governor candidates may have debated 26 times, or maybe 30. It all depends on what appearances are counted as debates, but under any math formula it was the most of any statewide campaign for a long, long time. In many states, two or three governor debates are normal; there was just one in Michigan this year.
- All three candidates said the number of debates was good, with less-known Emmer and Horner saying they were a good way to get their names known. For Dayton, "It is a great antidote for 30 second commercials."
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.