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State: Pawlenty holding narrow governor lead over Hatch

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty struggled to keep his job Tuesday in the face of an anti-GOP wave and a fierce challenge from Democratic Attorney General Mike Hatch.

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With 1.3 million votes tallied in half of the state's precincts, Hatch clung to a one-point lead.

``We're very hopeful. It's still early,' Hatch told supporters just before 10 p.m. ``We have high expectations.'

Late polls had Hatch and Pawlenty running about even as Election Day arrived. Unlike Hatch, Pawlenty didn't take to the podium Tuesday evening.

``For the most part it's been a neck and neck race for weeks and weeks and now into the wee hours of the night it's continuing to be neck and neck,' said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung.

Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson conceded defeat around 11 p.m., finishing a distant third.

Hatch made a promise to reduce college tuition the central theme of his campaign. He also hit Pawlenty hard on fast-rising property taxes, tracing them to state cuts in local aid on the governor's watch.

The one-two punch helped Hatch stake out a late-October lead. But a couple of high-profile missteps by the Hatch team -- his running mate flubbed a question on a key agricultural issue, then he berated reporters following the story -- plus a flurry of attack ads by Pawlenty supporters swung momentum back to the governor.

Hatch shrugged off Republicans' charge that he had shown himself unfit for the office.

``It's not temper, it's passion,' Hatch said. ``I have passion and I care about issues.'

Financial planner Mary Ann Maloney backed Hatch.

``I think we've dodged bullets on taxes during Pawlenty's term,' said Maloney, a 56-year-old financial planner from Lino Lakes. ``As a result we're facing some erosion of public education and we're not addressing issues of employment and minimum wage.'

Pawlenty hoped voters would reward him for eliminating a giant budget deficit without raising state taxes, although his rivals reminded people that several fees were hiked and a new surcharge was levied on tobacco.

Property manager Randy Hagerty, 46, of Centerville, went with Pawlenty.

``I'm in favor of careful government spending, and I think he's done a fine job in his first term, so I want to see him re-elected,' Hagerty said.

The high-energy, town-to-town campaign that Pawlenty waged in 2002 gave way in 2006 to a race dominated by TV commercials. Pawlenty chose to skip public campaign subsidies so he could raise and spend as much as possible, but all that fundraising kept him away from the retail politicking he excelled at four years earlier.

The Democrats used photos of Pawlenty with Bush during the campaign. It may have helped. Exit polling by The Associated Press found that nearly two-thirds of voters disapproved of Bush, and three-fourths of the critics went for Hatch.

According to exit polls, Pawlenty led sizably in the mid-sized cities with 10,000 to 50,000 residents and the suburbs while Hatch handily won Minneapolis and St. Paul. They were about even in rural areas.

In 2002, Pawlenty won the Twin Cities suburbs with 54 percent of the vote, while getting only 40 percent in the cities themselves.

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Hutchinson, 56, a former Minneapolis schools chief and state finance commissioner, told voters he was best suited to end the persistent Capitol gridlock that culminated with a partial government shutdown in 2005. But even though he pulled in more than $1 million in contributions and subsidies, he couldn't keep up in the ad wars.

Hatch, 57, built a reputation as a relentless consumer watchdog by taking a hard line with health insurers, banks and utilities during eight years as attorney general. He had run for governor twice before, in 1990 and 1994, but lost in the primary both times. Democrats last won a governor's race in 1986.

Pawlenty, 45, steadily rose through the Legislature's ranks before claiming the governor's office in a three-way race four years ago. He succeeded ex-pro wrestler Jesse Ventura and inherited a projected $4.5 billion budget deficit.

His decision against raising taxes made him a darling of prominent conservative groups. But his political opponents argued he did it by cutting too deeply into Minnesota's social safety net and not devoting enough to the educational system.

Outside groups put more than $3 million into the campaign to defeat Pawlenty.

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