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GOP debates see jabs but no haymakers

Mike Mosedale//August 1, 2014

GOP debates see jabs but no haymakers

Mike Mosedale//August 1, 2014

With the Republican gubernatorial primary fast approaching and no clear frontrunner yet to emerge from the crowded field, the candidates met in a trio of head-to-head radio debates over a period of less than 24 hours last week, producing some of the race’s feistiest exchanges to date.

Throughout most of the summer, the four principle candidates for the nomination have played it safe, sticking to the familiar talking points on the campaign trail and remaining largely constrained in their critiques of anyone who is not named Mark Dayton.

While such an approach dovetails with Reagan’s 11th commandment to not speak ill of a fellow Republican, adherence to high-minded principle isn’t the only explanation for the civility. It also illustrates the complex calculus of a competitive multi-candidate race, where going negative carries much more risk than in a conventional two candidate field.

With the Aug. 12 primary showdown looming, however, the hopefuls shed some of their characteristic restraint, breathing a little life into a race that heretofore has generated little excitement with the general public. That change in tone was noted by many of the politicos, activists and other insiders who provided real-time commentary on social media.

“Where were these 4 guys for the past 9 months?” tweeted Jeff Kolb, the blogger and Republican activist after the kickoff of the noontime forum on Minnesota Public Radio, which was the first of the three radio events that brought the candidates face to face for the first time in over a month.

“Well, these boys appeared to have found some pencil sharpeners for their elbows,” declared Carrie Lucking, the outgoing executive director of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, the outside spending group often credited with the DFL’s successful takeover of the Legislature in 2012.

But if the gloves were off, the candidates remained more inclined to throw jabs than haymakers.

After Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the party’s endorsed candidate, questioned the feasibility and wisdom of Orono businessman Scott Honour’s plan to institute across the board budgets cuts, Honour denounced Johnson for his “defeatist attitude.”

“There’s a difference between having a defeatist attitude and being honest with everyone,” Johnson responded tartly.

Over the course of all three appearances, Honour, who is making his first bid for elective office and has struggled to bump up his name recognition despite heavy spending, repeatedly characterized his rivals as “career politicians.” In keeping with his stump speeches, Honour cast his business acumen and lack of government experience as assets.

In the evening debate on the Twin Cities talk radio station, KTLK AM, Honour was more specific than usual in characterizing his career as a venture capitalist, saying that he’d helped buy and fix about 60 companies with an aggregate employee count of 50,000 and $20 billion a year in sales.

For those listeners who didn’t take the inference from those eye-popping numbers that he’s the candidate with bank, Honour explicitly touted his considerable advantage in campaign coffers. As of the last reporting period, Honour had $542,000 in cash on hand, more than his three rivals combined.

Honour did not mention that self-donations account for a large chunk of that advantage, but former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, who has the least money to work with, could not resist taking a poke.

During a discussion of the prospects for repealing the state’s gay marriage law, Seifert said he is willing wager $500,000 that will not come to pass. “I don’t have $500,000 to bet. Maybe Scott could help me out since he just loaned his campaign $500,000,” he said.

In his two appearances (he missed the KTLK debate because of a scheduling conflict but was on hand for the morning debate in Duluth), Seifert repeatedly touted his rural cred as the only candidate who doesn’t hail from western Hennepin County.

Seifert, who has focused much of his campaign on outstate, has evidently calculated that his path to victory lies with big margins in greater Minnesota and the hope that other candidates cut into one another’s base in the vote-rich metro.

Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove — who tied Johnson for the lead in a Survey USA primary poll taken in June, where each garnered 23 percent of likely voters — was the least aggressive of the candidates.

Emphasizing his conservative bona fides, Zellers pointed to his status as the lone signer of Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge. In another nod to an eminent national conservative, Zellers this week released a TV ad featuring statements from Rush Limbaugh, praising the Republican legislative leadership during the government shutdown when Zellers was House Speaker.

While appealing to the base with promises to take on Gov. Dayton’s “union thugs,” Zellers mildly chided his fellow Republicans for the intramural squabbling.

Johnson, back on the campaign trail after his weeklong hospitalization for a stomach ailment, also assumed the more statesman-like posture that is typically favored by front-runners.

Near the end of the third debate (on a Duluth radio station), he implored Honour  “to say something positive” about his primary rivals. Honour, who disputed Johnson’s assertion that he had “gotten negative,” responded that it was great “getting to know the three of you.”

Of the three debates, the KTLK was both loosest and liveliest, as co-moderators Rachel Stassen-Berger of the Star Tribune and Aaron Rupar of City Pages fired off questions unlikely to ever be asked on MPR. Most notable in that regard: A Rupar query about the candidates’ positions on marijuana law which included the side question, “And are you high right now?”

That elicited chummy laughter all around, but the subject highlighted one of the few clear policy differences to emerge from the debates: While all the candidates stated that they were opposed to legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes, only Johnson would liberalize Minnesota’s medical marijuana law, which he faulted as overly restrictive.

There were no big gotcha moments in any of the forums, although Rupar had a little fun with Johnson for his misidentification of the craft beer, Fat Tire, as a Minnesota product.

For the candidates looking to build their brands, the flurry of radio debates fell in a tough spot in the news cycle, which was dominated first by news about a former governor — the verdict in the Jesse Ventura defamation trial — and then by the fatal shooting of a Mendota Heights police officer.

The latter news broke in the midst of the MPR debate and, by the time the evening debate commenced, the story was further revived by the shooting and subsequent arrest of the suspect.

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