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Mark Dayton addresses a room full of Democrats at the Capitol building Wednesday in St. Paul. AP Photo

Post primary, DFL strives for political unity in divisive race

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ST. PAUL -- Now that Minnesota Democrats agree on their governor nominee, voters can concentrate on a race that shows huge differences among candidates.

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"There are clear, distinct choices," said candidate Tom Horner of the Independence Party.

"It is a pretty stark contrast," added state Republican Chairman Tony Sutton.

Democrats on Wednesday rallied behind department store heir Mark Dayton, on the political left, as their candidate. Lawyer Tom Emmer stands on the far right for Republicans. Horner says he is in the middle.

To find an example of the contrasts between Emmer and Dayton, a voter need not go beyond taxes. Dayton wants to increase income and property taxes on the rich; Emmer wants to chop taxes. The two vary just as strongly on any number of other issues.

They also faced far different primary election contests. Emmer had no serious competition, while Dayton needed to wait until Wednesday to find out that he narrowly beat state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher in Tuesday's primary election.

Kelliher conceded that she lost the primary race 11 hours after the news media projected Dayton the winner at 12:21 a.m. Wednesday. Later, she and another vanquished governor candidate, Matt Entenza, stood with Dayton and other Democratic-Farmer-Laborites to declare the party is united behind Dayton.

Dayton received 182,582 votes (41 percent) in unofficial returns and Kelliher 175,726 votes (40 percent) with 99.9 percent of the precincts counted. Entenza trailed with 18 percent.

The three spent the better part of an hour praising each other in an overcrowded state Capitol room filled with party leaders, campaign workers and other DFL faithful.

"The unity is unfolding," Dayton said as fellow Democrats filed into the room.

"Minnesota has gone more than 20 years without a DFL governor and it shows, doesn't it?" Kelliher asked minutes before pinning on a Dayton button.

Dayton said President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden each called to offer congratulations on Wednesday. He said it would be good to have a Democratic governor who can work with the administration. Incumbent Gov. Tim Pawlenty is a Republican thinking about running against Obama in 2012.

Republicans launch a television commercial today that blasts Dayton for being too erratic to be governor.

"He was absolutely, positively one of the worst senators in America," the commercial begins, later reminding viewers about a West Central Tribune story quoting Dayton as saying that he deserved an "F" in his single term as U.S. senator.

The spot ends with: "Mark Dayton, too risky for Minnesota."

Dayton was not surprised.

"I expected the smears to start right away and they have," he said.

Horner said that he, too, plans television advertising soon.

He told reporters that he is the perfect candidate for the majority of Minnesotans not interested in the political left that Dayton represents or the right that Emmer represents.

The key to the election, he said is, "in this polarized atmosphere, who has the ability to build consensus?"

True government changes are needed, Horner said, and neither Dayton nor Emmer offers that.

Horner, a former Republican and a public relations executive, could draw votes away from Dayton, Sutton said.

Tuesday's voter turnout surprised many, coming in higher than Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and others predicted at 589,814 voters. That is 15.5 percent of the nearly 4 million Minnesotans eligible to vote, and the most in a primary for a decade, but about a quarter of those that usually show up in a general election.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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