Minnesota Signpost Pointing Right?

September 10, 1994|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Sun Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Republicans across the country are looking to Tuesday's primary between Gov. Arne Carlson and his ultraconservative challenger, Allen Quist, for the answer to a burning question in national GOP ranks:

Will the religious right political movement take a giant step toward national power and influence in the party in the once-liberal Republican bastion of Minnesota?

The answer, the latest polls suggest, is probably not. The St. Paul Pioneer Press puts the moderate, free-wheeling Mr. Carlson running far ahead -- 64 percent to 26 percent. But he learned four years ago, when he led his opponent by 27 points going into the primary but lost by 19, that primary polls cannot be taken to the victory stand.

Mr. Carlson became governor anyway in 1990, when the man who defeated him quit under a cloud of personal scandal and Mr. Carlson, as primary runner-up, replaced him and went on to defeat Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich.

But Mr. Carlson's pull on voters in the Independent Republican Party, as the GOP here calls itself, has been open to question since that 1990 primary defeat. In a state party that has moved markedly right since the heyday of Republican governors such as Harold Stassen and Harold Levander before and after World War II, Mr. Carlson's Republicanism has been questioned by the new forces on the right represented by Mr. Quist, including the politically awakening religious right.

In June, party activists who were elected to the state convention gave the party's endorsement to the anti-abortion, anti-gay Mr. Quist, with 69 percent of the convention vote.

This result was widely reported outside the state as a "takeover" of the party by the religious right. But the fact is that right-wing forces, religious and otherwise, have been dominant in the party for a decade or more, first through supporters of Ronald Reagan and then the evangelist Pat Robertson.

The Quist campaign insists that the Christian Coalition, recently formed in Minnesota, has had no direct involvement in its campaign. And Carlson campaign manager Joe Weber says, "I still haven't seen any evidence of the national Christian Coalition in Minnesota."

Nevertheless, religious activists have rallied to Mr. Quist on positions ranging from anti-abortion and anti-gay rights to gun control and capital punishment. Carol Simmons, director of the Minnesota chapter of the coalition, says her group is intensely involved in voter turnout, without endorsing any candidate.

A new group, the Minnesota Conservative Political Action Committee, headed by Darrell McKigney, a young GOP conservative activist, is running independent ads against Mr. Carlson, twinning him not only with President Clinton but also with 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.

Mr. Quist himself has used the ultimate put-down against Mr. Carlson, suggesting in speeches and TV ads that not only is he not "a real Republican," but that he is a Clinton clone to boot.

One TV ad shows look-alikes of Mr. Carlson and Mr. Clinton awkwardly tap-dancing together as subtitles charge that both "raised your taxes," advocated "government-run health care that will lead to rationing," "gun control as an answer to crime" and "legalized abortion into the ninth month."

The latter allegation, a far reach from Mr. Carlson's support for "current law" as embodied in the Roe vs. Wade decision, led Mr. Carlson to sue Mr. Quist under the state's fair campaign practices law. It also drew news media criticism and ridicule of Mr. Quist.

The Carlson campaign has seized on the abortion charge to run TV ads spotlighting some of Mr. Quist's statements that have helped pin on him a reputation for quirky thinking. One was a remark that there is a "genetic predisposition" for men to function as head of the family. Another said only a third of voters had the wherewithal to cast responsible votes.

Mr. Carlson, in painting Mr. Quist as a dangerous extremist, incurred news media criticism himself by saying that his opponent was supported only by "a narrow sliver" of party voters but that "a narrow sliver has the ability to take over an entire system," which "clearly is how Hitler started out."

Nevertheless, the alleged quirkiness of Mr. Quist hangs over his candidacy. "They've done a pretty good job of demonizing him," Minnesota political newsletter writer D. J. Leary says.

Mr. Carlson himself says there are big differences between conditions in the 1990 primary he lost and the approaching one.

For openers, he says, he ran against a moderate four years ago, and that vote was split. This year, the ideological differences are clear.

As the incumbent, he has a record that led the Minneapolis Star Tribune to endorse him as "a thoroughly Republican governor." And he's been able to far outspend Mr. Quist in voter turnout efforts, which Mr. Carlson acknowledges he shortchanged in 1990.

Mr. Quist insists that the "consistency" and superior "motivation" of his volunteer conservative backers will make a mockery of the polls Tuesday.

The contentious primary fight has produced some unexpected bedfellows, principally the presence of former Rep. Vin Weber, a conservative shining light in the state, in support of Mr. Carlson. Friends say Mr. Weber has argued it would be party suicide to reject an incumbent governor. But some conservatives say Mr. Weber's action will hurt the 1996 presidential prospects here of his longtime ally, former Rep. Jack Kemp.

Three Democrats are vying for the gubernatorial nomination of the Democrat-Farm-Labor Party, as it's called here. State Sen. John Marty has the DFL endorsement, but he trailed former Minneapolis police chief Tony Bouza in the most recent Pioneer Press poll, 33 percent to 25 percent. The poll indicated that Mr. Carlson would handily defeat any of the three right now.

Mr. Bouza surprised political leaders the other day by calling for the outright prohibition of most handguns, a position that even the local gun-control group questioned in terms of enforceability.

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