Jeff Johnson has some catching up to do.
A poll just released by KSTP-TV shows that Gov. Mark Dayton has widened his lead over his Republican challenger, 51 percent to 39 percent, a position corroborated in other recent polls.
Tonight’s debate in Moorhead, the second in a series of five, will give Johnson the opportunity to take a more aggressive tone in describing both his own vision and the flaws he sees in the Dayton administration.
There’s only one problem with that strategy: The Forum News Service and WDAY-TV, the sponsors that initially limited the debate to Johnson and Dayton, have decided to include Independence party candidate Hannah Nicollet, based on a poll taken this summer that showed her with 11 percent support.
At a minimum, Nicollet’s presence in the 90-minute debate will siphon time from the other two candidates. That hurts Johnson in particular, since the debates are precious minutes that he must pack with persuasion.
Furthermore, Nicollet, who appeared in the candidates’ first debate last week in Rochester, demonstrated only the broadest grasp of public policy. Her answers often meandered, bringing the debate off-topic. A similar performance could prove to be a distraction for Johnson, who will want to stay laser-focused on his campaign talking points.
As in the first debate, Johnson will do his best to challenge Dayton. “This is where the governor and I differ,” was his polite way of disagreeing. Yet the man who even DFL party chair Ken Martin describes as affable seems incapable of communicating righteous indignation. With the election less than four weeks away, though, Johnson will try to step up the rhetoric.
Dayton certainly will talk about the accomplishments of his administrations and defend the policies he helped enact. He did so in the first debate.
And as the incumbent, he’s using the office to expand that list: At a news conference Tuesday, Dayton announced that the administration will spend $70 million dollars on road and bridge improvement across the state. In a non-election year, this announcement might have been left to the Department of Transportation.
Dayton has provided few details on his plans for a second term, even in one-on-one interviews. But given the longer format of this debate, it’s likely there will a few questions that move him in that direction.