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Despite trailing in the polls, Matt Entenza exudes confidence that he’s reaching DFL primary voters

The DFL gubernatorial challenger says his campaign is focused: “We’re talking to primary voters.” The political polls, he insists, don’t reflect those unique voters. And the polling “trend lines,” he says, bode well for his campaign.

For a candidate who consistently has been polling third in a three-person race, Matt Entenza seems supremely confident.

To date, the DFL gubernatorial candidate says, “We’re talking to primary voters.” The polls, he insists, don’t reflect those unique voters. The only thing that matters in the polls is the “trend lines,” he says. And those bode well for his campaign, he says.

Of course, no campaign worth its salt is going to say “we’re toast — the polls are showing we’re a non-factor.”

But Entenza actually seems to believe that come the primary election, his supporters will come out of the mists and propel him past Mark Dayton, the current leader in the polls, and the DFL’s endorsed candidate, Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

The most recent KSTP-Survey USA poll showed that Dayton is pulling away with 39 percent, Kelliher is flat at 26 percent and Entenza is moving up with 22 percent.

Entenza field staff primed for primary
And although the poll purportedly is based on likely primary voters, the Entenza staff insists that the poll is based on a bloated primary turnout. They say polls are assuming there will be a 25 percent turnout. The Entenza supporters say the real turnout will be closer to 15 percent and that their field operation, which was up and running long before anyone else’s, is far more focused on the people who actually will vote on Aug. 10.

A three-person primary is tricky business. Because it’s a family affair, no one dares go negative. If, for example, Entenza were “to go negative” on Dayton, it might hurt Dayton, but it also would hurt Entenza leaving the third person, Kelliher, as the only one who would come out ahead.

Matt Entenza
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Matt Entenza

So to date, this campaign has been cautious. A little jab here, a little poke there.

Kelliher supporters occasionally take an occasional swipe at “the two rich GUYS that SHE is taking on.”

Dayton jabs that he is the one DFLer who dares openly talk about the need to raise taxes on the wealthy.

Entenza pokes at Kelliher by criticizing the DFL convention system that endorsed the speaker of the House.

The endorsement, he says, “always goes to the person with the highest title.” Four years ago, it was Attorney General Mike Hatch (more later on Hatch-Entenza history). Before that, it was Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. Before that, Attorney General Skip Humphrey.

In Entenza’s view, the list offers evidence that the DFL endorsing convention is an “insiders” game, where super-delegates and special-interest groups rule.

(Certainly, there’s nothing insider about the Entenza campaign, which is pretty much devoid of the standard DFL endorsements. He did call a news conference Tuesday to announce gaining a “major” endorsement, which turned out to be Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, who as a candidate for governor, attracted little DFL support.)

Dayton is always a DFL factor, he says, but has some of the same problems the DFL-endorsed candidates have had: too many promises to too many interest groups.

“Democrats are terrible at having a message,” he says. “The message always ends up being ‘We support everything.’ But when you’re for everything, you’re for nothing.”

Entenza low on promises, high on priorities
That’s what separates his campaign from the others, he says. It’s low on promises.

“A governor can’t do 25 things,” he says. “You get three things. You have to plant your flag in the sand on those things.”

Entenza’s three priorities: education, sustainable energy and getting the state’s budget balanced.

That Entenza is even a participant in this campaign shows that he’s highly motivated, wealthy enough to finance much of his campaign and that voters have short memories.

Just four years ago, the former St. Paul legislator stepped down as the DFL’s candidate for attorney general when it was learned that he had hired a firm to do “negative research” on Hatch, who was, of course, the DFL’s eventual gubernatorial nominee. This was ugly business, made uglier by the fact that Entenza, for some time, hedged about the amount of money he’d spent for the research.

He says now that the only people who have even asked about that affair are reporters; he says voters are wildly indifferent. He even casts himself in a rather heroic light when he talks about the Hatch business.

“I made a decision based on what was right for the party,” he says, adding that it would have been bad for the party to have two people at the top of the ticket who didn’t get along.

That’s a substantial wart on his career. But then, neither of his opponents is exactly wart-free, either.

Dayton quit after one term in the Senate and says now that “I knew things were bad in Washington [in terms of making it virtually impossible to accomplish any of his legislative prirorities] but they were even worse than I thought.”

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And many DFLers believe that Kelliher, as House speaker, should have been able to more effectively counter Gov. Tim Pawlenty — a criticism she rejects.

Warts and all, the three battle on, with Dayton making the most political noise and Kelliher picking up the most endorsements. Entenza, meanwhile, has garnered most of his attention with a major TV advertising buy and with his controversial selection of TV anchor Robyne Robinson as a running mate.

Entenza dismisses the idea that her selection was an act of political desperation. Rather, he says, choosing Robinson shows he’s the one outsider in an otherwise insider race. It also shows, he says. that he understands the importance of diversity in 21st Century politics.

One thing about the Robinson choice. She probably is known by more Minnesotans than the guy at the top of the ticket.

“A nice problem to have,” Entenza says.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.