One hundred days into his hectic new life as Minnesota's governor, Mark Dayton is surprising supporters and detractors alike with how he is leading the state.

An unabashed liberal who favors raising taxes on the wealthy, Dayton is reaching for common ground with Republicans on several issues -- to the dismay of some bedrock DFLers.

At times shy and awkward as a candidate last fall, Dayton now is hurling himself almost daily into retail politics, wading into friendly and unfriendly venues alike.

A diffident U.S. senator who quit after one term, Dayton also seems to be relishing the big sticks that come with the governor's office.

"I still sometimes have to be the meanest one around," he said recently, after forcing health insurers to deal on his terms. "I'm well suited to that role when I have to be."

But now the biggest test yet of his leadership looms, as he and the first GOP-led Legislature in modern state history attempt to bridge their differences to balance a budget with a $5 billion hole in it.

So far, Dayton has made little headway on his preferred solution: raising income taxes for higher earners. Instead, he and GOP leaders are heading toward a classic standoff of smaller government vs. higher taxes. If no one swerves, the state could be on the path to a government shutdown by summer.

Yet Dayton sounds confident that he can avoid that fate. Asked recently about whether he had failed in his first 100 days, Dayton considered the question for a moment and said, "You know, I don't think I have."

Showcasing his power

To get things done, Dayton has been willing to cozy up to adversaries and risk irritating some friends.

In his first months in office, he has enacted laws that have long been high priorities of Republicans and business leaders. But he has done it in a way that showcased his power as governor -- and robbed Republicans of the ability to claim pure victory.

Weeks into his term, just as Republican lawmakers were teeing up a proposal to cut the time needed to get business permits, Dayton trumped them with an executive order to do just that.

He followed that move by joining forces with Republicans on a bill to allow midcareer professionals to become teachers, leaving the teachers' union miffed.

More shocking to Democrats was Dayton's decision to join Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in supporting a new Stillwater bridge that many environmentalists oppose.

"I wish he would not be so quick to compromise," said DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling, a 10-term veteran from Roseville. Greiling generally gives the first DFL governor in a generation high marks but says she is concerned that he may be "more worried about ending on time than he is in holding out for a good resolution."

The rapport Republicans have been able to strike with the governor on those issues has left some hope that a similar accord can be reached on thornier matters.

"I really think there is a pathway to success," said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo.

Some DFLers fret that the governor is so busy forging bipartisan relationships that he is neglecting those on his side.

Rep. Alice Hausman, the ranking Democrat on the House Bonding Committee, said Dayton never consulted with her on his bonding bill proposal.

"He should have," the St. Paul Democrat said, adding that his tendency to skip over leading Democratic lawmakers has been "a frustration."

Outside the Capitol, Dayton has been busy making first impressions.

He ventured to north Minneapolis recently to convene a packed town hall meeting on high, chronic unemployment in the black community. When a delegation from Bemidji visited the Capitol, he donned a borrowed red-and-black lumberjack-style vest so he would fit right in. At the end of a formal news conference, he weaved into the crowd to families that had crowded into the reception room, bending on one knee to greet the children eye-to-eye. On Tuesday, he addressed his latest, potentially hostile crowd -- an auditorium of high school students.

The governor quickly got them laughing.

"I always get nervous speaking in front of a group of young people because I remember, my two sons had to go hear me speak years ago and my son Andrew looked at me very seriously and said, 'Dad, I really don't want to go. I heard you speak once and it was really boring,'" Dayton said.

To 18-year-old Tim Wegleitner, Dayton came across as just "a normal guy."

"He goes everywhere. He is at everything," said Hausman, who notes that Dayton has been "enormously successful" with the public.

Dayton clears the time to do all that by empowering his commissioners.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius paved the way for the alternative teacher licensing deal over meals with Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo and others. While Dayton was cheering on students at a school robotics competition, his Human Services commissioner, Cindy Jesson, was brokering the deal with health insurers.

The idea to get them to return their extra profits on state contracts to the state was hers. Dayton talked through his philosophy on it, then left her to seal the deal.

"I think you're better with people if you try to create a classic win-win situation. It's not always possible," he said. "It's whatever works."

Reality check time

Now, Dayton is sizing up the massive budget challenge before him. In roughly six weeks, he will either have a budget deal or be forced to call legislators into a special session that only they can end.

But Dayton is not looking for a high-stakes game of chicken. What's more likely, he said, is a negotiated budget agreement that no one fully likes.

Republicans have already drawn their line. "We are going to have to compromise," said Senate Taxes Chairman Julianne Ortman. "We are going to have to work together. But we will not compromise on the goal of not raising taxes."

Dayton would not say whether he will insist on a tax increase to end the session.

"At some point, we're going to take some of yours and some of mine and put them together and agree to it while we both reserve the right to disagree," he said.

Staff writer Baird Helgeson and University of Minnesota intern McKenzie Martin contributed to this report. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164