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Governor candidates meet on unholy ground -- the Minnesota Newspaper Association Convention

GOP gubernatorial candidate Phil Herwig (on the big screen) tells several other candidates who talked about raising taxes to solve Minnesota's budget crisis, they were "out of their minds" during a major parties gubernatorial debate in Bloomington Wednesday evening. The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the Minnesota News Council and the Minnesota Newspaper Association. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

MINNEAPOLIS -- More governor candidates showed up for a massive Wednesday night debate than the average precinct caucus will host next week.

And still, just two-thirds of the candidates planning to run this year were at the gathering, the biggest such forum Minnesota political observers remember.

In front of hundreds of newspaper workers, candidates found some ways to separate themselves from each other.

On local government aid, like most other issues, there was sharp division between Democrats and Republicans.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate Paul Thissen, a Twin Cities legislator, said his travels around the state showed that state payments to local governments is a top priority.

"We need to sustain the quality of life as well as the job structure," he said.

Even worse, he added, the city-state relationship; "has become intensely frayed."

Rep. Tom Rukavina, a Democratic Iron Range legislator, said that his property taxes have doubled in five years, much like other rural residents. That, he said, is because formulas that determine how much money the state sends to local governments has become "twisted."

Long-shot GOP candidate and businessman Phil Herwig did not like hearing that LGA and other programs need to continue.

"So far, from what I have been hearing here, I think most of these people are out of their minds," he said, because people are in financial trouble and do not have money to continue these programs.

Rural legislator Marty Seifert, a Marshall Republican, said that local aid was meant "to be an equalizer" between financially rich and poor communities.

But, he added, "we have to understand that government at all levels have to live within their means."

There were so many candidates that debate organizers did not ask the same questions of all.

The Minnesota News Council and League of Women Voters sponsored the forum during the Minnesota Newspaper Association annual convention.

It was moderated by Alexandria Echo Press Editor Al Edenloff, Gary Eichten of Minnesota Public Radio and Star Tribune columnist and editorial writer Lori Sturdevant.

Most Independence, Republican and Democratic candidates will be on straw poll ballots at Tuesday night's precinct caucuses, giving them an idea about where they stand. Many of those caucus meetings will be small gatherings.

Wednesday night's forum was the final major candidate gathering before the caucuses.

Democrats at the debate were state Sen. Tom Bakk, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, former state Rep. Matt Entenza, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, former state Sen. Steve Kelley, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, state Sen. John Marty, state Rep. Tom Rukavina, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, artist and perennial candidate Ole Savior and Thissen.

Republicans attending were environmentalist Leslie Davis, state Rep, Tom Emmer, former state Rep. Bill Haas, state Sen. David Hann, Herwig and Seifert.

From the Independence Party were businessman Robert Hahn, public relations executive Tom Horner, the self-employed Rahn Workcuff and 2008 U.S. Senate candidate John T. Uldrich.

Overall, Republicans repeated their no-new-taxes policy, saying the state budget can be balanced by program cuts. Most Democrats said they could support some tax increases. Independence candidates split on the question.

Among the comments:

-- Emmer proposed a law to allow a governor to declare a fiscal emergency. Once that was declared, legislators would have 45 days to balance the budget.

-- Kelliher said the state would be better served if a policymaker "respects everyone with that election certificate." Too much is done in St. Paul based on emotion, she said.

Rybak pushed his background as the only mayor in the bunch. "I am the one who has true, clear experience of managing in the public sector. ... Local governments are making it work."

On the Republican side, an October state convention poll and some local polls indicate that Seifert and Emmer are the front-runners. The October poll also showed Hann as a contender.

All Republicans other than Davis have pledged to abide by the April state convention endorsement, and not run in the fall primary election.

That is not the case with Democrats. Dayton has asked that his name not be on Tuesday's caucus ballot and has said since he got into the race that he plans to run in the primary election.

Gaertner also says she will run in the primary, and Entenza strongly hints he will as well. Some lesser-known candidates also will run in the fall.

Handicapping the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party race has been difficult.

A recent Rasmussen poll showed Dayton leads other DFL candidates by 9 points, with Rybak in second.

However, Dayton and Entenza both have large personal bank accounts and could provide plenty of important funding.

At the same time, Kelliher and Rybak have good name recognition due to their current jobs.

Dayton has been a regular on statewide ballots.

  (Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.)