But he keeps a low profile while conferring and fundraising.
WASHINGTON - Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, top vote-getter in the disputed Minnesota governor's race so far, told a meeting of the Democratic Governors Association on Wednesday that he's confident he will be the state's next governor.
"We don't believe in boring, conventional elections in Minnesota any longer," Dayton told the annual gathering, where he was careful not to be introduced as a "governor-elect."
"We want recounts and drama," Dayton said. "But I'm 9,000 votes ahead, so I'm confident."
Backers of Republican candidate Tom Emmer said Dayton's optimism might be premature. "We're following the process of the hand recount, and there's the potential for a [legal] contest," said Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Tony Sutton. "We'll have to see the results of that before we start swearing anybody in."
In Washington to confer with top Democratic leaders and raise money for the recount, Dayton took pains to avoid the spotlight, skipping a news conference set up to showcase the nation's eight new Democratic governors to the national media. (Dayton would be the ninth.)
"I'm not presuming on the outcome of the recount," he told the Star Tribune as he dashed between meetings at the St. Regis Hotel on 16th Street, a block from the White House. "I've made that very clear."
But among those booking Dayton's win was Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the new chairman of the Democratic governors' group -- one of the few gatherings of Democrats in Washington with much to cheer about after the 2010 elections.
"With Mark Dayton's win in Minnesota, we flipped five states from Republican to Democratic in a very tough year," O'Malley said.
Still, taken together, Republicans enjoyed a net gain of five governorships nationwide, from 24 to 29.
The Democratic Governors Association had a substantial stake in the Minnesota governor's race. The group poured a record $1.5 million into the contest. But it was still outspent by the Republican Governors Association, which shelled out $2.4 million for Emmer.
Democratic money coming
With a recount victory seemingly in sight, the Democrats say they plan to spend even more to secure a win in Minnesota.
"We've contributed to the effort, and we're going to continue to contribute financially, legally and in every other possible way," said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic governors' group.
Daschle, the son of former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, noted that Dayton's current margin of victory is 30 times greater than U.S. Sen. Al Franken's 312-vote recount victory over former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota's 2008 Senate race.
Coleman, now considered a potential successor to Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele, was also in Washington on Wednesday, where he was seen meeting with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Meanwhile, Dayton met with top Democratic leaders in the Senate, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, with whom he served between 2000 and 2006.
He and several Democratic governors also met with White House Chief of Staff Pete Rouse.
In keeping with his low profile, Dayton arrived late and left early at a Democratic governors' "strategist" luncheon. In a brief address, he contrasted the job of governor to his single term in the U.S. Senate, where he said he started out "100th in seniority."
"Hubert Humphrey once said that the longer you're in the Senate, the better seniority looks to you," Dayton said to laughter. "I wasn't there long enough to for it to look good to me."
But as governor, he said, "you can really lead from Day One. ... That's the opportunity I look forward to."
Gearing up for court
In an interview, Dayton said he expects to return to D.C. in "a couple of weeks" to raise more money for the recount, and for the possibility of a protracted court battle after that. "That's a huge variable," he said.
Among several national groups he was meeting with, Dayton said, was the National Education Association, the Democratically-aligned teachers' union.
The meeting drew criticism from the GOP's Sutton, who said the union opposes needed education changes such as alternative teacher certification. "It tells you the kind of governor he would be," Sutton said.
Sutton also criticized Dayton's public acknowledgment in Washington of the help he received from ex-wife Alida Messinger, a scion of the Rockefeller family and major Democratic donor in Minnesota.
For Dayton, however, the trip to Washington with 70 percent of the recount finished came close to a victory lap. "I've gained some votes every day," he said. "As long as it keeps up. ... "
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.
On the third day of a statewide recount, State Republican Chairman Tony Sutton hinted at the possibility of moving the contested election into the courtroom. B1