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Early morning on the first day of the Minnesota State Fair, Sheryl Chute and her sister slipped away from their work at the fair to join the line of Minnesotans hoping for a moment with U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
With the sound of the Democrat’s booming laugh mixing with the noise of the fair throngs, the two reflected on what they get out of meeting politicians at the state’s biggest get-together — and what politicians get out of meeting them.
“It humanizes them and you forget, sometimes, that these guys are not like the bad guys,” said Chute, 67.
“Good point, good point. It humanizes them. Yup,” said Lydia Wigren, 70. Wearing matching blue State Fair shirts, Wigren and her sister are DFLers from Minneapolis, working parking and tickets sales.
By this time next year, Minnesota’s airwaves will be polluted with dehumanizing messages, tearing down the men and women vying to be the state’s next U.S. senator and governor. But with a year to go before the flood of nastiness, politicians are at the fair in force, employing low-key meet-and-greets and maybe a touch of humor to woo the Minnesota masses.
“We haven’t gotten into that season where candidates are beating up on each other yet, so people generally don’t come to you with a preconceived notion of how evil you are,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor. “The vast majority of people just say hello.”
At his State Fair booth — in the same spot as the booth he had when he ran for attorney general in 2006 — Johnson is asking Minnesotans their top priority if they were governor and posting the answers on his booth. He’s also offering one of the more understated political buttons at the fair: “Re-elect Dayton? Um … no.”
In this off-election year, wise politicians know to dial down the bile and keep their messages more digestible and less pointed than fried food on a stick.
At the DFL Party booth, visitors can have their pictures taken with life-size, cardboard cutouts of First Dog Bo, President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and, interestingly, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who retired from office and who is widely expected to run for president in 2016.
Not to your liking? Wander over to the Republican Party booth, where a cardboard figure of Ronald Reagan beckons, along with a luckless volunteer sweltering in an elephant costume. At the Libertarian Party booth, a flat figure of frequent presidential candidate Ron Paul carries the words, “Miss me yet?”
“There are actually alternatives to the left and right paradigm and we’re going to show that,” said Libertarian Party executive director Andy Burns, as a rock band’s warm-up blared in the background.
At the Minnesota Tea Party booth, party leaders Jack Rogers and Jake Duesenberg offer another option. “A lot of people are feeling like the Republican Party isn’t giving them the answer and the Democratic Party isn’t giving them the answer, so they’re like, ‘Hey, Tea Party,’ ” Duesenberg said.
Rogers said their booth is an attempt to put a more approachable face on the Tea Party and show Minnesotans that they are neither “monsters” nor “radicals.”
Candidates who are less than household names also get a chance to show voters that they exist.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob Farnsworth, a special-education teacher from Hibbing, was at the fair the moment it opened. He’s hoping the crowds who pass by his booth will, later in the season, at least see his political signs and say, “I remember that name.”
For Minnesota fairgoers, there will be lots of political names to remember. Along with Johnson and Farnsworth, GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour has a stand at the State Fair, as do House Reps. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove and Dave Thompson of Lakeville and other U.S. Senate candidates.
More established pols like DFL Gov. Mark Dayton can afford to keep their appearances very low-key.
“I’m not in campaign mode. This is just being here and going to the fair,” said Dayton, who spent his time shaking hands, singing birthday greetings and hearing plaudits — and a few complaints — from Minnesotans at the fair.
Asked for advice to fairgoers, Dayton counseled: “Have fun.”
Asked if he didn’t want to convey a slightly more political message, Dayton — who won in 2010 with only 9,000 votes to spare — said no, adding, “that’s as political as you want to get at the Minnesota State Fair.”
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB