Gubernatorial hopefuls toss out tradition of 'Minnesota nice'

September 14, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MINNEAPOLIS -- In a political era when negative advertising and character assassination have become the norm elsewhere, the folks here call their preference for accentuating the positive "Minnesota Nice."

Through most of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary campaign for governor that goes to the voters tomorrow, the five candidates have practiced it to a remarkable degree. It's not only because that approach is traditional here but also in this case because the contenders are all longtime friends.

Three of them -- state Attorney General Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey, former state Sen. Ted Mondale and Hennipin County Attorney Mike Freeman -- are sons of famous and revered men in the annals of the Minnesota DFL. Their fathers, former Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale and former Governor and Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, all were colleagues in the DFL's halcyon days.

The other two -- department store heir and former state Auditor Mark Dayton and longtime state Sen. Doug Johnson -- are also familiar names, Mr. Dayton by virtue of heavy spending of his own money for television ads in two earlier races and Mr. Johnson as champion of rural and anti-abortion, anti-gun control issues.

Until a few days ago, the campaign was such a lovefest that the newspapers in Minneapolis and neighboring St. Paul were all but lamenting the lack of conflict. But with Election Day now at hand, at least two of the contenders, Mr. Freeman and Mr. Johnson, have begun to take the gloves off -- in Minnesota fashion, anyway.

With Mr. Humphrey riding his top name identification and his recent successful $6 billion suit against the tobacco industry to a comfortable 15-point lead in the polls, Mr. Freeman, endorsed by the DFL and the state AFL-CIO, and Mr. Johnson now have him squarely in their sights.

Mr. Freeman in a new television ad takes a dig at Mr. Humphrey for endorsing this year's likely Republican gubernatorial nominee, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, for mayor in 1993 when Coleman was a Democrat (and a Humphrey lieutenant) running against a DFL-endorsed candidate. "Some candidates may be afraid to say no to Norm Coleman," Mr. Freeman says in the ad. "I believe it's time to take a stand."

Mr. Freeman, and Mr. Johnson, also attacked Humphrey for the same reason in a radio debate the other night, and all four contenders piled on the front-runner for switching earlier from an anti-abortion to an abortion rights position in a state with a strong anti-abortion movement.

"We need to look very carefully at the consistency of the candidates," Mr. Freeman said of the flip-flop, which Mr. Humphrey first denied in the debate. And Mr. Mondale mildly chided Humphrey, saying that "going from pro-life to pro-choice not being a flip-flop kind of takes my breath away."

As campaign clashes go these days, this was pretty bland. So was Mr. Mondale's wondering aloud the next day whether Mr. Humphrey might be afflicted with what he called "the Quayle factor. Mr. Humphrey in his own ads, however, is painted as forceful and decisive. In one, in which he insists there will be "zero tolerance" of drug dealers, he says: "Minnesota Nice? No. Minnesota Tough when it comes to those who threaten our children."

For all the focus on what is somewhat derisively called the "My Three Sons" aspect of the DFL gubernatorial primary, it is Dayton who was running second behind Humphrey in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press poll. His showing apparently resulted from heavy television buys this summer while the other four candidates were off the air. But polls often mean little in primary elections, in which turnout can be decisive, and all five are now running broadcast advertising.

DFL officials are predicting a low turnout tomorrow because the differences among the candidates are not great and the campaign has been so low key. Mr. Freeman is counting on the party apparatus and labor to produce bodies at the polls, while Humphrey depends on a combination of his name and his performance record, especially in the tobacco deal.

Mondale, the youngest in the field at 40, is offering himself as the candidate of fiscally responsible change against the DFL's "old-time religion" of tax and spend.

In any event, no matter who wins tomorrow, all five candidates vow there will be no "Minnesota Nice" this fall, when the survivor takes on Republican Coleman.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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