Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton now share one ma­jor head­ache: The vexing pol­i­tics of sex of­fend­er policies.

Finding the right solutions for dealing with the worst sex offenders in the state has long eluded the highest elected official in the land.

The leader this time, Dayton, has been hit hard by ri­vals for the state’s role in potentially mov­ing some civilly committed sex of­fend­ers and for not op­pos­ing the re­lease of another.

Seri­al rap­ist Thomas Du­vall, who served his prison term, has long been locked in a state hospital. Du­vall’s crimes, con­fes­sions and fan­ta­sies were aired in news reports as he ap­proach­es re­lease. Like most of the 700 sex of­fend­ers now civ­il­ly com­mit­ted in hos­pi­tals, the horrific accounts cause night­mares for poli­ti­cians and voters alike.

But, the legal thinking goes, grave constitutional questions arise if the state never releases any sex offender from civil commitment after their prison terms, creating de facto life sentences. The state is allowed to keep them locked up only because it promises to be treating them. If no one ever completes treatment, the courts could strike down the whole program.

Af­ter enduring a steady bash­ing for not taking a tougher stand, par­tic­u­lar­ly from Republican guber­na­to­ri­al con­tend­er Kurt Zellers and the state Republican Party, the governor hit back.

Say­ing “po­lit­i­cal grandstanding” and games­man­ship were destroying fruit­ful dis­cus­sion, he closed the door on sup­port­ for fu­ture re­lease of sex of­fend­ers until legis­la­tive pro­po­sals emerge to fix the be­fud­dling sys­tem.

Much of Dayton’s ex­peri­ence is reminiscent of the way the issue roiled parts of Paw­lent­y’s term.

Paw­lent­y, like Dayton, had a strong law-and-ord­er reputation. But he spent years grap­pling with crit­i­cism over his handling of sex offenders and pro­pos­ing poli­cies to find solutions for dealing with of­fend­ers.

A decade ago, Paw­lent­y and then-DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch led newscasts and news­papers with their bit­ter spar­ring over the issue. At one point, three years be­fore Hatch nar­row­ly lost the governor’s e­lec­tion to Paw­lenty, Hatch told the Star Tribune that Paw­lent­y was about to unveil a plan to re­lease the worst offenders from se­cure hos­pi­tals.

The publicly jovi­al and calm Paw­lent­y lashed out: “We ha­ven’t pro­posed it. We will not pro­pose it. And in fact we op­pose it,” a clear­ly agi­tat­ed Paw­lent­y said in 2003. “It is fic­tion. … This al­le­ga­tion has now been ele­vat­ed into a po­lit­i­cal de­bate, pri­mar­i­ly in­volv­ing the at­tor­ney gen­er­al.”

He later proposed a plan to impose the death penalty for sex offenders, which Minnesotans have long rejected.

Echoing Pawlenty, Dayton said this week: “The political partisanship has made it clear that this is an issue that will be seized upon and abused by some who don’t mind scaring the people of Minnesota for their own advantage.”

This month, the brickbats are swinging in all directions.

DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson and the governor have publicly differed on Duvall’s case. Swanson has said he should not be released; Dayton has backed his human services commissioner in not opposing Duvall’s release.

And Zellers, who bashed Duvall’s proposed release, has taken some big hits from his own party.

Zellers professed outrage that Dayton would not stop Duvall’s release. He did it at a Capitol news conference. He did it in a message to supporters of his gubernatorial campaign, titled “When Leaders Lie.” And he has done it for days on Twitter.

That’s when Zellers’ Republican gubernatorial rivals struck back.

“A serious public safety issue, such as dangerous sex offenders, shouldn’t be the subject of the usual political games,” said Scott Honour.

The political ado has again netted headlines, but it is far from certain it will net a safer Minnesota.