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In the final weeks leading up to the general election, Democratic political operatives and pundits seem haunted by what many refer to as “the ghost of Mike Hatch.” Like this year’s DFL gubernatorial nominee, Mark Dayton, Hatch was leading in nearly every poll in the final month before Election Day 2006, and Democrats across the state were starting to see a clear path to the governor’s office for the first time since Iron Ranger Rudy Perpich won re-election in 1986.

Dayton plays to moderates, tries to avoid late miscues

In the final weeks leading up to the general election, Democratic political operatives and pundits seem haunted by what many refer to as “the ghost of Mike Hatch.” Like this year’s DFL gubernatorial nominee, Mark Dayton, Hatch was leading in nearly every poll in the final month before Election Day 2006, and Democrats across the state were starting to see a clear path to the governor’s office for the first time since Iron Ranger Rudy Perpich won re-election in 1986.

But an 11th-hour controversy, spawned by Hatch’s calling a reporter a “Republican whore” for questioning his running mate’s inability to identify fuel E85, may have played a decisive role in handing Gov. Tim Pawlenty the closest gubernatorial election in years. Republicans have tried to portray Dayton as “strange” and “erratic,” citing the time Dayton closed his U.S. Senate office to protect staffers from potential terrorist attack. And Dayton, by his own admission, has struggled in the past with depression and alcoholism. Some GOPers say keeping Dayton out of the spotlight is the only sure way to avoid a similar high-stakes mistake and pull off a win over Republican Tom Emmer and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner on November 2.

“I think he probably just needs to stay locked in his campaign office,” Gregg Peppin, a longtime GOP strategist, said. “He cannot make a Mike Hatch-like gaffe. There is no doubt in my mind that the Democrats are shaking in their boots about that.”

Dayton’s schedule, however, doesn’t show any sign of letting up. Before Election Day, Dayton has at least three more gubernatorial debates planned, two candidate panels, as well as everything from pheasant hunting with DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and a dairy farm rally, to a high-profile event with President Barack Obama at the University of Minnesota.

One pro-Dayton source says the strategy is less about hiding Dayton from the public — an unwise move this close to Election Day — and more about campaign staff and others doing everything they can to make sure he doesn’t “lose his cool.” “He needs to be calm and not lose his temper and not say anything stupid like Mike did,” the source said. “I think people are working diligently to make sure there is no major screw-up in the next two weeks.”

DFLer and political strategist Darin Broton agrees, saying this is Dayton’s race to lose. “When you are up by five or six points, the biggest thing you can do is not make a mistake,” he said. “What Dayton needs to do is lay low, but keep talking, and let Horner and Emmer keep battling with each other.”

But St. Olaf political science professor Dan Hofrenning said it’s unlikely Dayton will make a last-minute mistake, as he never had a major misstep in any of his other bids for statewide office. “Dayton has always struck me as a really disciplined, hard campaigner,” Hofrenning said. “I think he decides on a message and sticks with it.” For Hofrenning, Dayton’s challenge as the days tick down is to solidify his base and appeal to moderates and independent voters who may be wary of his tax-the-rich proposal.

The Independence Party candidate has factored into the last three gubernatorial elections, winning a dozen years ago with ex-pro wrestler Jesse Ventura and tipping the tide in Pawlenty’s favor in 2002 and 2006. Democrats have privately acknowledged the potential for Horner to do the same for Emmer. Prominent DFLers like House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and former legislator Matt Entenza gathered in South Minneapolis last month to meet with voters and establish a clear distinction between Dayton and Horner, a sign of fear in the Dayton camp that the third-party candidate may poach the votes of moderate Democrats.

“This race comes down to Tom Horner,” the Democratic source said. “If he makes a surge in the next two weeks, he is going to take votes from Dayton. Right now we need to keep him in the sweet spot, and that’s at 14 and 15 percent and clipping more from Emmer.” Melissa Parker, a former Kelliher campaign staffer and now a lobbyist with Fredrikson and Byron, agreed that Dayton needs to catch the eyes of independent voters. “He needs to talk to independents who are going to make a decision at the last moment,” Parker said, “and that decision needs to be Mark Dayton.”

Most Democrats also gripe about Dayton’s presence, or lack thereof, on the air. As of last week, Emmer’s campaign had booked nearly $800,000 worth of network television time in the Twin Cities for the final three weeks of the governor’s race. That far surpasses the air time reserved at that point by Horner and Dayton. The DFL nominee had less than $30,000 booked at area stations. Dayton’s campaign has said they plan to book by the end of the week, but some say his current level of air time is simply not enough.

“He needs to keep reminding people about how important this election is,” Broton said. “There’s a lot at stake.”

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