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No ‘knockout punch’ in first gubernatorial debate

The campaign for Minnesota’s governorship advanced beyond the stage of genial television ads and strongly worded press releases on Wednesday as the three mainstream candidates seeking the state’s highest office met face-to-face-to-face for a debate in Rochester.

The event, which had a stated theme of issues relevant to greater Minnesota, gave the candidates a first opportunity to test lines of argument and, especially in the case of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, to trot out their best defense against their opponents’ attacks.

Topics included the role of government in encouraging job growth and economic development, the state health insurance exchange and mining regulations. In most instances, both Republican Jeff Johnson and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet took aim at policies enacted by Dayton and the DFL’s legislative majorities.

The direction of the challengers’ attacks was expected given the Democrat’s perceived strength in the race. Dayton entered the night with a commanding advantage in fundraising, where he had more than twice as much cash on hand as Johnson as of the late September reporting date, and a 45 percent to 33 percent lead in a recent statewide poll conducted by the Star Tribune. The scenario makes the five scheduled debates all the more important for the GOP challenger, granting just a handful of chances to differentiate himself from the incumbent without dipping into his campaign bank account.

Dayton attempted to ingratiate himself with the standing-room-only audience by making reference to local developments, touting the state’s partnership with the Mayo Clinic on the Destination Medical Center project and the 3 percent unemployment rate in Rochester.

Johnson was armed with statistics of his own, pointing to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics finding that Minnesota experienced the slowest private-sector job growth in the Midwest over a 12-month period.

“That all directly relates to our taxing, our regulatory and, in some cases, our spending policies in this state,” Johnson said.

On the same topic, Nicollet said the state should eliminate the corporate tax altogether and cut back on “burdensome regulations” that discourage businesses from relocating in Minnesota. It was one of several instances when Nicollet’s positions mirrored Johnson’s fiscally conservative case, a fact not lost on Sen. Carl Nelson, R-Rochester, who was in attendance, and said Nicollet’s comments were “generally good.”

“Much of the time, she echoed what [Johnson] was saying,” Nelson said.

Their similarities were also noted by DFL Party chair Ken Martin, who also observed that Johnson’s and Nicollet’s statements were short on specifics.

“It was a lot of generalities and, frankly, just critique,” Martin said.

Republican Party of Minnesota chair Keith Downey is not worried about Nicollet’s potential to pull votes from Johnson, pointing out that her support for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use would likely get attention from the state’s most liberal voters.

“It’s a little hard to know where that kind of policy viewpoint is going to draw voters,” said Downey, adding that former IP candidate Tom Horner had chosen to endorse Johnson in this year’s contest.

Both Downey and Martin said future debates would be better off without Nicollet’s presence, while Dayton, for his part, prefaced his closing remarks saying the political newcomer should be allowed the same chance to participate that Horner was granted in 2010.

Martin said the incumbent’s edge should remain unchanged: Dayton avoided any verbal missteps, while Johnson failed to produce a memorable moment that might get voters’ attention.

“They each came in with a much different strategic imperative,” Martin said. “Johnson needs a knockout punch — he needs to change the dynamic of this race. And he didn’t do that.”

Johnson’s best moment, according to Ben Golnik, chair of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, came as he discussed MNsure, the state health insurance exchange. Earlier Wednesday, Dayton had responded to newly released premium rates, which found Minnesota would still have the lowest average premium costs of any state in 2015.

Seizing on Dayton’s remark that he did not “lose sleep” over MNsure, Johnson said, “I lose sleep over MNsure, and hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans are losing sleep.” The Republican went on to say that, if elected, his first step to fix the exchange would be firing the MNsure board and top staffers at the exchange.

“[Johnson] showed a lot of fire there, and I think people like to see that from him,” Golnik said.

Martin commended Johnson’s closing statement, which centered on perceived class warfare against successful entrepreneurs, as a pithy summary for Johnson’s belief system, but said the Republican’s performance was otherwise “flat” and “milquetoast.”

Dayton mostly opted to fend off criticisms of his administration by explaining his own policies, but switched to a more pointed response when Johnson alluded to an issue — and a region — which have traditionally been good for the DFL. When the GOP nominee doubted that the PolyMet mining project would open during a second Dayton term in office, the governor dismissed the claim as an attempt to “pander to northern Minnesota.”

Downey thought Johnson came off as “crisp, clear and articulate,” and said the event gives evidence for why Dayton’s campaign has sought to limit the number of debates. Dayton declined to participate in a forum at the State Fair, which Downey called “traditionally the kick-off of the political season,” and also turned down offers for events that would have been broadcast by KSTP and WCCO.

“I think you have plenty of indicators that show [Dayton] knows he’s in trouble, and won’t debate well against Jeff Johnson,” Downey said.

If Dayton is thought to dread his next encounter with Johnson, his party’s leader apparently doesn’t. Martin said he is looking forward to the Oct. 8 debate in Moorhead, where Dayton and Johnson will have to perform without the use of notes — “I’ve never seen candidates using notes on stage before,” Martin said — and the tempering influence of Nicollet’s presence.

“It’s going to be just the two of them onstage … mano a mano, so to speak,” Martin said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

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