The Republican lawyer is pitching a message of stripped-down government and personal responsibility.
Tom Emmer drove an hour from St. Paul to his home in Delano as the sunset sliced through storm clouds breaking up over the prairie.
He hadn't eaten. He had missed his daughter's volleyball game.
Emmer settled in at the dining room table, preparing to restore himself with a bowl of chili after a grueling day on the campaign trail.
It was a quiet, reflective moment for a man known during six years in the Legislature for blazing crusades against what he calls big-spending, business-choking government.
In his quest to be Minnesota's next governor, Emmer often frames government as an invasive species that must be beaten back, and he espouses a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach that threads through much of his life. He believes it resonates with the voters he meets.
"There's an awakening going on," Emmer said. "There are more people today interested in taking ownership of their life, of their freedom. I think that's an exciting thing, and why I think we should be optimistic."
With less than a month to the election, the GOP conservative and Tea Party favorite trails DFLer Mark Dayton in recent polls and is ahead of the Independence Party's Tom Horner. But his numbers haven't moved much in months. He has just a few weeks left to reach beyond his diehard base, captivate the broader electorate and pull ahead.
Those on the other side of the political divide are eager to ensure that doesn't happen, warning of what an Emmer administration could mean.
"Tom Emmer is not looking out for the middle class," said state DFL chairman Brian Melendez. "He's protecting big businesses, which will result in cuts in education, health care and public safety that other Minnesotans rely on."
But Emmer has spent much of his life confounding those who think they have him pegged and finding unlikely and sometimes nerve-wracking paths to the win column.
Along with adversaries, he has amassed a long list of admirers, including a few who have bounced between those groups.
"He's a very engaging man; he listens," said David Adams, a supporter in Fergus Falls. "He really understands the need to streamline government. That really connects with people."
For years, Emmer's red-faced speeches at the Capitol raised social issues so controversial -- from advocating chemically castrating sex offenders to delaying welfare benefits for new arrivals -- that even his political soulmates sometimes winced. He has sparred publicly even with members of his own party, calling it "aggressive, vigorous debate."
But in the past few months, Emmer has toned it down. On the stump, he is sounding more like Ronald Reagan and less like Rush Limbaugh.
He and his wife, Jacquie, spend much of their time now motoring from town to town in a creaking, 10-year-old RV to pitch his gospel of stripped-down government.
At a recent campaign rally in Baxter, about two dozen sign-waving supporters, most over 50, huddled in an old insurance office. They exploded with applause when Emmer and Jacquie shuffled in.
"Everything is going exactly the way we had hoped," Emmer told them. "This is about the collective belief that this country needs to go in a different direction."
The crowd was hanging on every word.
"You know, this country was built by people celebrating success, celebrating American exceptionalism, not apologizing for it," Emmer declared.
"Right!" said one attendee.
"Yeah," cheered another.
Afterward, Emmer and his wife strode back to the RV. Next stop: a turkey farm.
Thomas Earl Emmer Jr.'s first political debates happened right at home.
He was 10, the oldest of three children in a Catholic family that sent the kids to parochial school. They lived in an Edina neighborhood of manicured lawns and spacious homes, among retired professional athletes and executives. His parents say their son Tommy was a quiet kid who studied hard and earned decent grades.
He loved to debate politics with Grandpa, a proud Democrat. Despite Grandpa's heart condition, their debates raged throughout the house.
"Grandma would say, 'Now Tommy, you've got to stop that, you're going to just kill him,'" recalled Emmer's mother, Patsy. "He was so little, but they both loved it. So they'd say 'OK' and then they'd just go to another room."
Emmer gravitated to sports, with a special affinity for hockey. When he was younger, he played forward. Later, he played defense. He planned to give up hockey to attend Notre Dame, but he wasn't accepted there and instead was invited to play hockey at Boston College.
After a year, Emmer said, he wasn't excelling on the ice and failed to earn a scholarship.
Around that time the family lumber business went bankrupt, a painful landmark in the Emmer family story. He returned home to see a life lesson in handling hardship unfold. "My dad was always positive and determined to put it back together," Emmer said. "The way they handled it left a lasting impression."
When it came time to take a photo for the Christmas card that year, they got dressed in their finest clothes and waded into the swimming pool. The caption read: "We took a dive in '81 but we are coming up splashing in '82."
Shortly after that, Emmer got a scholarship to play hockey for the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
The brown-haired jock ventured 3,054 miles to the remote Alaskan outpost. He lived in a cabin with no heater, chopping wood, playing hockey and teaching himself to fly fish. With his parents' financial hardship, there was no calling home for money.
The experience taught Emmer that "ultimately, at some point you have to find your own way. You have to take responsibility for your life."
He returned to Minnesota and met a Dayton's department store travel agent named Jacquie Samuel. They married in 1986. Two years later, he graduated from William Mitchell College of Law.
The Emmers bought their first house on Lake Sarah, in Independence, Minn. Emmer stepped into local politics after the city proposed clearing trees near his property and sent him a $35,000 assessment for a new sewer line and road. He won a seat on the Independence City Council.
After about seven years, they moved closer to their kids' public school in Delano. Emmer served on the Delano City Council.
In 2004, he ran for a Minnesota House seat being vacated by Dick Borrell of Waverly. Area Republicans had asked Borrell to withdraw from the race after a Star Tribune article revealed a sexual indiscretion from 15 years before.
Emmer said Jacquie urged him to run. "In the end, we decided you can't just tell the kids what they should do, you need to show them. Stand up and speak up, be part of the solution."
Emmer easily won in the conservative-leaning district and crushed his opponents for reelection in 2006 and 2008.
Big man, big motivation
At 6-foot-1, Emmer has a doughy midsection and a thick neck. He greets supporters with a powerful handshake and a huge smile that swallows up his eyes and spreads wide the Emmer family jowls.
At 49, his hair is grayer and thinner, his face a little fuller. He's looking more Jeb Bush than George W. Bush.
Many candidates shield their families from the rigors of campaigning. Emmer has made his a centerpiece of his run. His father is the campaign's treasurer. His son, Tom Emmer III, or Tripp, has been on the payroll.
Over the years, Emmer has bounced issues off Jacquie rather than a cabal of advisers. She often travels with him. They frequently detour to their children's athletic events.
On the campaign trail, storytelling can be high theater with Emmer. When he's fresh, he uses wild hand gestures and cartoonish facial expressions to exaggerate his point. He often uses humor to disarm and connect.
Emmer tells a joke at campaign events about how he and his wife compromised on the size of their family.
He tells them Jacquie wanted four kids and he wanted three.
"So we compromised -- and had seven."
But there is also a somber side to Emmer informed by personal tragedy. Late in 1999, his younger sister, Bridget, had a sudden and savage cancer relapse. He flew to California to be with her.
"She was in serious pain," Emmer remembered. When she wanted to get out of bed, he would guide her to where she wanted to go.
"You really do learn about who you are when you are literally slow dancing with your sister when she is dying," he said.
Although he admits to a terrible fear of needles, right after Bridget died, Emmer went to a tattoo parlor on Ventura Boulevard. Etched on his hip: a shamrock, to honor his sister's love of all things Irish.
"My sister told me, in so many words, you have not lived if you have not gotten every minute out of every day," he said.
Her death, he said, focused his passion for public service. The daily struggles of life, from raising a family to building a law firm, refined his politics.
"Government is supposed to be doing things for us and with us, not against us," he said.
Wins and losses
At the Legislature and early in the governor's race, Emmer developed a reputation for leaning on charisma and seat-of-the-pants bravado in lieu of rock-solid preparation.
Even some of his most ardent supporters cringed when Emmer called a town hall meeting in July to go toe-to-toe with restaurant workers seething over comments he made about their earnings. As reporters watched, Emmer was hammered by angry workers before a prankster stunned attendees by dumping $20 in pennies in front of Emmer, abruptly ending the event. The meeting was widely seen as a needlessly damaging political move.
Around the same time, Emmer proposed to veterans that families of fallen soldiers should get money to pay for their education.
The problem: Gov. Tim Pawlenty had signed the proposal into law three years before. It was part of a broader education bill -- that Emmer voted against.
He won the case
Emmer's way of maneuvering through confrontations took root in his early legal career in the 1990s, when he worked for the Erstad and Riemer law office in Minneapolis. His job was mostly defending insurance customers.
Emmer excelled at wooing insurance execs with humor, dinner and drinks, recalled Leon Erstad, a founding partner.
"But as a lawyer, he couldn't administratively keep two files straight," Erstad said. "He was never interested in working hard or rigorously thinking his way through something. When it came time for trial, he'd be unprepared."
Erstad said in one case Emmer seized on a single issue: What caused a fire? But he said Emmer wasn't well versed in the rest of the case.
Yet, Emmer won, on the precise point where he focused his effort.
Emmer disputes that he had trouble keeping files straight or lacked preparation. But he said he was a novice attorney and has learned a lot since.
At the Legislature, colleagues in his caucus say he is a voracious reader of reports and bills. Emmer also noted that while Erstad is "a great guy," they are competitors as lawyers now.
Erstad said the firm declined to make Emmer a partner. Emmer soon left to start his own firm.
The DWI albatross
Sometimes Emmer's get-tough gospel of personal responsibility runs up against the complexities of his family and himself.
In 1981, when he was 20, he received a DWI-related ticket. A decade later, he received his second DWI charge. He pleaded guilty to careless driving, while two drunken-driving charges and a license-plate charge were dropped.
But the charges prompted a stinging political ad this year by the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, an independent political group that supports Dayton. It spotlighted Emmer's DWI charges and his 2009 effort at the Capitol to delay revocation of licenses for suspected drunken drivers -- a move that Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the head of the state's DWI task force opposed, saying it would weaken DWI laws. The ad featured Margaret Everson of Anoka, whose son was killed by a drunk driver. She questioned Emmer's support of a bill that would have reduced drunk driving penalties. "Minnesota needs a governor on our side, and that's just not Tom Emmer," she said in the ad.
In September, Emmer's campaign issued a statement after his oldest son, Tripp, 20, was cited for underage drinking: "My son made a serious mistake and has paid the consequences," the statement read. "Our family is dealing with our son in this matter with humility, seriousness and love."
Emmer points out that he has talked openly about his drunken driving experiences.
"I made a mistake," he said. "I never shied away from that. I learned from the mistakes."
Does he still drink? "Occasionally, absolutely," Emmer said. "But I don't drive."
During the campaign, Emmer's tendency for heated public confrontations surfaces occasionally.
He can bristle at reporters' questions he finds too prodding. When asked for details on his budget proposal in June, Emmer shot back, "I am not running to be the accountant."
Some voters fail to find his manner charmingly feisty. "Frankly, Tom Emmer is an arrogant bully," said Cal Simmons, a partner in a commercial insurance company. Simmons is a conservative who supported Pawlenty, but he is now a Horner supporter. He made up his mind on Emmer after seeing him on a morning TV program. "He does not get along well with other people," Simmons concluded.
Emmer says that's an inaccurate assessment. He insists none of the bluster is personal, that he merely relishes vigorous debate.
"When I went through the endorsement process, I was being told by people that never met me that I have a hair-trigger," Emmer said. Some people think "if you keep poking and prodding me that all of the sudden you are going to have this outrage or explosion. It's not who I am."
Sometimes, however, Emmer's wrath takes longer to fully unleash.
Emmer and state Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, were on opposing sides during the successful effort to override Pawlenty's veto of a gas tax hike in 2008.
Emmer stuck with Pawlenty; Abeler sided with Democrats.
The spat escalated into a famously explosive Capitol hallway disagreement some nearby lawmakers feared might come to blows.
"We've had multiple heated discussions," Abeler says now. "I think that's how he does his work. You always know what he's feeling and he never minces any words."
Emmer didn't just leave their debate in St. Paul. He traveled to Abeler's home district during the endorsing convention and stunned Abeler and some other Republicans when he gave an impassioned speech urging people to vote for someone else.
"There's a bit more hockey player in his Minnesota Nice than there is in mine," Abeler said.
But there's a twist: When asked who he supports for governor, Abeler didn't flinch.
"I'll be voting for Tom," he said. "I respect him for who he is."
In that, Abeler echoed some of Emmer's supporters who admire what they see as an authentic character. Perfect, no. But someone who will do what he thinks is right and stand firm against anyone who gets in his way.
If he doesn't prevail in November?
Emmer says he has no plans if he loses the race. He and Jacquie will go back to raising their family and could revitalize his legal practice.
As usual, he has confidence he would find a way to rebound. "We'll figure out how to take care of ourselves," Emmer said with assurance.
If he wins, there's still a family discussion to be had about whether they'll live in the Summit Avenue governor's mansion or continue to drive in 50 miles from Delano.
But before they get to that, there are miles to drive and plenty of voters to convince.
As Emmer rolled out of Fergus Falls recently, Peter Balega was impressed with what he had heard: "I think Tom is a very sincere individual. He's somebody who has worked hard to get where he is. ... That's what this state, and this country, need right now."
Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288