Let’s say you were one of those Minnesotans who tuned in Sunday evening for “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” only to find out that the program had been pre-empted by a debate among the three DFL gubernatorial candidates. Let’s say you actually didn’t click the remote to another channel.
What would you have learned about Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza and Margaret Anderson Kelliher in the hour-long debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and KSTP-TV?
1. Dayton wants to tax the rich and was a U.S. Senate colleague of the late Paul Wellstone. He made frequent references to both of those facts, as well as the fact that he’s received the endorsement of the Mesabi Daily News.
2. Entenza grew up poor in Worthington and knows that Minnesotans are tired of bickering politicians. Those were his oft-repeated refrains.
3. Kelliher is a mother, grew up on a farm and has been endorsed by the Star Tribune. She made frequent references to each of those facts.
Clearly, all three candidates believe that most Minnesotans haven’t been paying much attention to this primary scuffle as it heads into the final days. They were trying to introduce themselves to anyone who might have been watching.
The final days
Little things stood out about how the final days of this long, expensive campaign will unfold before the Aug. 10 primary election.
Kelliher will be the most aggressive. In Sunday evening’s debate — which also was telecast live on KSTP’s sister stations in Duluth, Rochester and Alexandria — she dished out the harshest criticisms, though it should be noted that she spoke without harshness or anger.
She hit Dayton in his most vulnerable spot, his decision to drop out after one term as a U.S. senator, noting that he had given himself an “F” grade for his work in Washington. She noted that earlier in his career, he also had quit after one term as state auditor.
“Where I come from [that would be the farm], you do the work until it’s done.”
Dayton didn’t seem troubled by Kelliher’s punch.
Given the opportunity, he said, “I will serve two terms as governor.” As for that ‘F’ grade, he said that “I’m a hard grader. Unlike Pawlenty, I’ll hold myself to a higher standard.”
Later, when his Senate performance was raised by KSTP’s Tom Hauser, the debate moderator, Dayton noted that the whole Senate deserved an “F.” He also proudly pointed out that he and Wellstone had been among 23 senators opposing the war in Iraq.
“That’s the defining vote of my career,” he said.
Kelliher also took a hard swing at Entenza. She noted that when he was a state rep, he’d supported stricter financial disclosure laws for Minnesota pols. Now, she said, unlike her and Dayton, he won’t disclose his income taxes. What’s up with that?
Entenza responded by noting that as House speaker, Kelliher had not passed a bill that required more complete disclosure. Then, he said he figured Minnesotans are “tired of squabbling and finger-pointing.”
Actually, a ‘quibble,’ not a debate
But that was about as tough as this debate got. In fact, it could have been called a “quibble,” not a debate.
Given a chance, by Hauser, to say something positive and negative about their foes, the candidates seemed to follow the lead of Dayton, who was the first to respond to Hauser’s invitation.
“I have great respect for both of them,” he said. “We all have so many detractors, I’m not going to add to that. DFLers have three great choices and on Aug. 11, we’ll all be friends.”
Hauser sort of shook his head at all the kind talk and muttered something about singing “Kumbaya.”
It is, of course, a problem to have a debate among three candidates who tend to agree on most of the issues.
They all say they’ll be the education governors and the jobs governors. They all say they’ll raise taxes on the wealthiest, though Dayton defines wealthy differently from the other two. Dayton describes “wealthy” as a couple making $150,000, which places them in the top 10 percent of the wage earners in the state. Kelliher, who along with her husband made $144,000 last year, believes that sort of wage is “middle class.”
(One little area of difference: Dayton would be interested in supporting a single state-run casino at either the Mall of America or Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Entenza sharply opposes that, saying that in his days as a prosecuting attorney, he saw too many white-collar crimes created by gambling compulsions. Kelliher was more mildly opposed.)
It also is tough to have an interesting debate among three people who are so humorless and scripted.
Entenza did try to make a little joke about being the tallest candidate, but it sounded more like a boast than a wisecrack, meaning it fell flat.
With so few days left before the primary, none of these three is going to be unguarded, even for a few moments.
How will it all end?
The Star Tribune’s Sunday poll, which admits to a whopping 7.8 point margin of error, shows that Dayton has a 10-point lead over Kelliher.
Even Dayton dismissed the poll, comparing primary polls to perfume: “Nice to sniff, not good to swallow.”
Entenza, who had just 17 percent in the poll, scoffed at the poll’s projections of a 60 percent turnout. He continues to insist that his well-managed campaign is connecting with people who really will vote.
Meantime, Kelliher said it’s her “ground game” that will make her a winner. To that end, only Kelliher had a large group — maybe 25 or 30 people — outside the KSTP studios waving banners and urging people traveling down University Avenue to honk their support for Kelliher.
But on a Sunday summer afternoon, there wasn’t much traffic, so there wasn’t much honking.
Maybe everyone had rushed home to watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.