3 revered names clash in Minnesota's Democratic primary Humphrey son favored over younger Mondale and party pick Freeman

September 13, 1998|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- Three of the most famous political names in Minnesota history -- Humphrey, Mondale and Freeman -- will confront the state's Democratic voters Tuesday when they scan the ballot to select their party's next candidate for governor.

Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey and Ted Mondale, sons of the two former vice presidents, and Hennipin County Attorney Michael Freeman, whose father, Orville, was governor and President John F. Kennedy's secretary of agriculture, will vie with two other prominent party members to carry the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) banner into the fall campaign.

Party dissension

Although the Democratic contest has drawn national attention because of the nationally prominent fathers and is referred to here with some weariness as the "My Three Sons" campaign, it is marked more by dissension within the party of the three fathers than by nostalgia.

The DFL state convention endorsed Freeman, who alone of the five candidates had pledged not to challenge the endorsement in the primary if he didn't get it.

"They voted for the guy who said he'd respect them in the morning," says D. J. Leary, a veteran Minnesota political newsletter editor.

The other four candidates are bucking the endorsement in Tuesday's primary. They argue that Freeman made the pledge because he knew he could not be nominated without the party endorsement. Freeman also has been endorsed by the state AFL-CIO.

Although the DFL gubernatorial campaign has been marked until the final days by traditional Minnesota politeness, Freeman makes no effort to hide his displeasure with Humphrey, particularly for challenging their party's endorsement process.

"Skip Humphrey is going to destroy the party," Freeman said during a break in a radio debate among the five candidates the other night. "My father and his built the party and he's going to destroy it."

Others say the fate of the DFL endorsement process, in which a candidate must receive 60 percent of the convention delegates to be anointed, may rest on Freeman winning the primary. His loss would build pressure for ending or revamping it.

Humphrey, riding not only on his greater name identification but also on his 16-year record as an effective "watchdog" state attorney general, capped by his recent success in winning a $6 billion suit against the tobacco industry, is the clear front-runner. The two other sons and a long shot, state Sen. Doug Johnson, have been running far behind in the polls.

The most recent poll -- taken for the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- had Humphrey supported by 38 percent of likely DFL voters surveyed, to a somewhat surprising 23 percent for former state auditor Mark Dayton.

A department store heir, Dayton pumped more than a million dollars into television ads over the summer, when all the others were off the air. Dayton once before spent $7 million of his own money in a losing race for the U.S. Senate.

Despite their higher name identification, Freeman and Mondale trailed Dayton with 10 percent each in the same poll, with Johnson at 4 percent.

Republican mayor

In matchups against the expected Republican nominee -- St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman -- Humphrey ran strongest, leading him, 43 percent to 29 percent. Dayton and Mondale also ran slightly ahead of Coleman, but Freeman trailed him by 36 percent to 32 percent, giving Freeman's opponents ammunition to charge that he is the least electable, despite the DFL -- and state AFL-CIO -- endorsements.

Polls, however, are notably undependable in many primary elections, in which turnout -- in both numbers and political leanings of voters -- is hard to predict. In this one, turnout is expected to be unusually low because the campaign -- at least until the final days -- has been quiet and courteous, with differences among the candidates not particularly sharp.

The generally strong state of the economy, and growing apathy about politics, are also said to be factors in the low expectations for voter participation. Few here argue that the sex-and-lies scandal ensnarling President Clinton in Washington has had much to do with it. "It's kind of a water-cooler topic," says Dan Ostlund, Dayton's campaign manager.

Coleman, the likely Republican nominee, is a former DFLer who switched parties.

Freeman in recent days has attacked Humphrey in television ads for having supported Coleman, at the time a Humphrey lieutenant, in the 1993 mayor's nomination race against the DFL-endorsed candidate when both were Democrats.

"What's wrong with being loyal to a friend?" a somewhat testy Humphrey asked reporters after the radio debate, in which Freeman also raised the issue of Humphrey's earlier support of Coleman.

Humphrey's voice gets raspy on such occasions in a way reminiscent of his famous father. But other than a slight facial resemblance, he does not have the fiery and ebullient presence of the late Hubert.

Ted Mondale, on the other hand, looks a lot like his father, who has been a strategist and sometime campaigner for his son.

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