As the Minnesota governor's race rushes to a close, DFLer Mark Dayton continues to lead the field, while Republican Tom Emmer may be gaining ground. Meanwhile, support for the Independence Party's Tom Horner appears to be slipping, according to a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
Dayton has strengthened his lead to 41 percent, according to the poll, followed by Emmer at 34 percent. Horner, who has struggled to get out of the teens in all public polls, is at 13 percent. That's down from a peak of 18 percent last month.
The poll was conducted between Oct. 18 and 21 among 999 likely Minnesotans voters on both land-line and cell phones. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Dayton has been the frontrunner in the governor's race in Minnesota Polls taken since the summer. Emmer posted his highest numbers yet in this poll, but he has been unable to catch up to Dayton.
"I think people have known me for 35 years and I am grateful that they are putting more stock in what they know about me than in what other people are now saying about me," Dayton said Saturday.
The poll suggests that Democrats could be closing in on their best chance to win the governor's office in more than two decades, while Republicans may have a lot of convincing to do if they want to continue the Republican streak that Gov. Tim Pawlenty started eight years ago.
Emmer spokesman Carl Kuhl said Saturday that "we are very confident in our ability to close this election strong and win this election." He disputed the poll's findings and said other polls have shown a closer race, although all show Dayton in the lead.
Matt Lewis, spokesman for the Horner campaign, admitted disappointment in the numbers but did not dispute them.
"It's a challenge. It's not going to be easy," said Lewis. "We need people to vote for who they think is going to make the best [governor] and not for who they think the polls are telling them who can or can't win."
The poll found that slightly more voters identified themselves as Democrats than Republicans and independents in the state, but the three political groupings were fairly close.
In this poll, the sample of likely voters consisted of 34 percent Democrats, 31 percent independents and 30 percent Republicans.
Dayton, a former U.S. senator, is running a campaign that bucks the anti-tax, anti-government mood evident in much of the rest of the country.
From the start of the campaign, he has pitched the need for higher taxes on wealthier Minnesotans to resolve budget deficits and to preserve and improve government services.
So far, the poll suggests, that stance has not hurt him -- 48 percent of likely voters said they view him favorably, while 40 percent said they don't.
Dayton holds an advantage in virtually every demographic group and is running well ahead of Emmer and Horner in the Twin Cities metro area.
There appears to be a significant gender gap in the race. Dayton and Emmer do almost equally well among men, but 43 percent of women choose Dayton, compared to only 32 percent who back Emmer.
"I just think he has a really good feel for what Minnesotans need and want, and he will work for us," Annette Contos, of Fergus Falls, said of Dayton.
The 72-year-old Democrat said she likes Dayton's "tax the rich" message. "I think we all have to bite the bullet and pay more taxes," she said.
Emmer has held on to most Republicans and Dayton has done the same with most Democrats, according to the poll. But the findings also suggest that Dayton has attracted a number of independents -- 30 percent.
That's as much as Horner and significantly more than Emmer's 23 percent.
Emmer makes his strongest showing among voters who earn more than $75,000 a year, drawing 39 percent. For Dayton the figure is 34 percent.
Negative ads take toll
Months of negative ads appear to have taken a toll on all three candidates, with their unfavorable ratings ticking up as the assaults mount.
According to the poll, the number of voters who view Emmer and Horner unfavorably now exceeds the number who view them favorably.
About 48 percent of Minnesotans view Dayton favorably, compared to 41 percent for Emmer and 32 percent for Horner.
Both Emmer and Horner have their fans.
"We need to limit government and not give government free rein. We need to rein in the expense and freewheeling spending," said Evy Chritton, a 57-year-old Champlin homemaker. Chritton, a Republican, is backing Emmer.
Chris Hubert, an independent from West St. Paul, said he plans to vote for Horner.
"I think he's got the most comprehensive policy that I've seen so far on both taxes and spending," Hubert said. He is 24 and works at a re-insurance company.
If Horner were not in the race, the poll suggests that both Dayton and Emmer would pick up votes, but that Dayton would widen his lead.
When asked to choose solely between Dayton and Emmer, 49 percent of voters chose Dayton, 39 percent chose Emmer and 12 percent remained undecided.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164