Flap fuels governor's race

ST. PAUL -- A lieutenant governor candidate saying she knew nothing about corn-based E-85 fuel could spell the difference in a tight Minnesota governor's race.

ST. PAUL -- A lieutenant governor candidate saying she knew nothing about corn-based E-85 fuel could spell the difference in a tight Minnesota governor's race.

"If the election is very close, yes, that could make a difference," said Jim Danielson, a Minnesota State University Moorhead political science professor and pollster.

When an Alexandria television reporter asked Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Judi Dutcher about E-85, she said that she "can't even comment on it, I'm sorry. It's like you've asked me the college quiz bowl question. What is E-85?"

The answer is that E-85 is a blend of 85 percent ethanol, usually made from corn, and 15 percent gasoline. Minnesota's 200-plus E-85 pumps are more than the rest of the country combined.

Ethanol is important in western and southern Minnesota, where candidates are concentrating much of their attention in the campaign's waning days.


Attorney General Mike Hatch came to his running mate's defense Thursday, saying Dutcher is "an extraordinarily bright person."

He suggested Republicans are using the incident to draw attention away from Hatch's longtime support for the ethanol industry.

Dutcher said the slip-up came after a long day of campaigning.

"All you can say is you're tired and you're not perfect all the time," she said in a Thursday interview. "I understand the importance of ethanol in rural Minnesota."

KSTP-TV reported the interview occurred in the morning.

A former two-term state auditor and 2002 candidate for governor, Dutcher said she was "amazed that this has blown up."

On a Hatch-Dutcher southern Minnesota campaign swing Thursday, most reporters' questions were about Dutcher's comments.

"This, to me, is the theater of the bizarre and indicative of why more people don't run for office," Dutcher said.


Republicans, including Pawlenty, Thursday launched attacks on the Hatch-Dutcher ticket.

A potential lieutenant governor not knowing about E-85 "is a blow to the credibility of this state," Pawlenty told reporters during a conference call.

"It would be different if this were some nuanced issue or some obscure issue." Pawlenty added.

The E-85 issue highlighted Thursday's Minnesota political activity. Otherwise, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar brought former Vice President Al Gore to the Twin Cities and most other candidates fanned out across the state seeking votes.

Minnesotans head to the polls Tuesday, with the governor's race getting most of the attention because it is so tight. A St. Paul Pioneer Press-Minnesota Public Radio poll released Thursday showed Hatch with a 2-point lead, which is less than the poll's margin of error.

Danielson, who contributed to Hatch and other Democrats, said the Dutcher gaffe impact will be strongest if Republicans turn it into a television commercial "and it is played over and over again." State Republican Chairman Ron Carey would not reveal his party's plans, but strongly hinted that the incident will be used in the campaign's final days.

The issue is especially important to western and southern Minnesota, where corn is a vital part of the economy. Those parts of the state are where some observers say the governor's race will be won because many voters could go for either Hatch or Pawlenty.

Chairman Brian Melendez of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said Dutcher's comment will hurt the Hatch campaign. However, he quickly added, it won't ruin the Hatch-Dutcher ticket's chances.


"It is just a campaign gaffe," Melendez said. "Those happen all the time. ... This is going be blown out of proportion because the election is five days away."

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau said she wondered what impact Dutcher would have if elected, given that she couldn't discuss a major economic issue for rural Minnesota.

"If you don't know what is going on in your state, how big a benefit are you to the citizens of the state?" Molnau asked in an interview.

Independence Party governor candidate Peter Hutchinson said Republicans are going after the wrong person. It is Hatch who lacks an ethanol plan, Hutchinson said.

The long-shot candidate said he looked at Hatch's energy plan and ethanol plays no part in it, despite the Hatch plan being 27 pages long.

It's not just Dutcher who knows little about ethanol, said Doug Peterson, Minnesota Farmers Union president. Sixty percent of people who filled out a survey at the group's State Fair booth didn't know about it, either.

"She reflects the fact that we need to do some more education about it in the state of Minnesota," Peterson said.

While the Democratic-leaning Farmers Union was sympathetic to the Hatch-Dutcher ticket, its politically conservative rival organization didn't let the DFL candidates off the hook.


Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said Dutcher's comments wouldn't have been as concerning if the state didn't have such a big role in the industry.

"If you ask a lot of people in Minnesota what E-85 is, they'll give you the right answer," he said.

Paap, who grows corn and soybeans in southern Minnesota's Blue Earth County, said he was concerned that "someone at that high of a level doesn't understand it."

"I think it's kind of a wake-up call to folks in Minnesota. There's a strong contrast," he said, calling Pawlenty "a spokesman for the ethanol industry."

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, invited Dutcher to his farm to learn more about ethanol.

Sviggum said Minnesota leads the nation with more than 200 commercial E-85 pumps. The ethanol industry is projected to generate $1.72 billion in total economic impacts and 6,400 jobs in 2006. By 2012, those numbers are project to increase to $1.84 billion and 6,863 jobs, the speaker said.

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