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In the race to become Minnesota's next governor, DFL candidates Mark Dayton and Margaret Anderson Kelliher each appear to hold significant leads over Republican challenger Tom Emmer, a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found.
A third DFLer, Matt Entenza, has a statistically insignificant lead over Emmer in the poll.
The poll, which for the first time includes cell-phone users, surveyed 902 Minnesota adults statewide July 26-29 on a number of topics. The gubernatorial election results are based on the responses of 831 registered voters in the sample; those questions have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
DFLers are battling toward an Aug. 10 primary that will determine which of the three faces off against Emmer in the November election. The poll indicates that among those who intend to vote in the DFL primary, former U.S. Sen. Dayton leads House Speaker Kelliher, the endorsed candidate, with Entenza last among the three. Undecided voters still could tilt the race to any of the three.
The poll also suggests that come November, Independence Party endorsee Tom Horner -- who trails the field -- could draw equally from Democrats and Republicans in a general election unless Kelliher is the nominee. In a Kelliher-Emmer match-up, Horner would draw far more from Republicans than from Democrats. That would be a change from the dynamic of previous elections, when Democrats have been more vulnerable to third-party candidates.
The overall poll results among the five major candidates indicate that Democrats may have a head start on their goal of retaking an office that has eluded their grasp for more than two decades and that Emmer apparently has work to do to close the gap.
Democrats may be getting a boost from their high-profile nomination fight. They've spent millions getting their names in front of voters, with just 10 days left before the earliest primary in decades. So far, they have aimed much of their firepower at Emmer, aided by hundreds of thousands of dollars of TV ads bought by Democratic and labor groups. In contrast, Emmer has yet to run a television ad, although a group representing business has spent heavily on an ad promoting him.
Dayton, who appeared on top in the poll results, said he's glad to be ahead but expects the race to narrow.
"I think this will be a close election," Dayton said.
Jaime Tincher, Kelliher's campaign manager, said the numbers show that the more Minnesotans get to know Emmer, "the lower his numbers go."
But Bill Walsh, Emmer's deputy campaign manager, said the Republican's low showing is no surprise given the "barrage" of money spent attacking Emmer. By November, Walsh said, Minnesotans will get to know where Emmer stands and support him.
Neither red nor blue
Last week's random-dial telephone survey found that more voters identify as Democrats and independents in Minnesota than as Republicans, but the GOP also has gained support since last year. In this poll, the sample consisted of 27 percent Republicans, 32 percent Democrats and 30 percent independents, with 7 percent offering no party identification.
Those numbers confirm that Minnesota is neither strongly Democratic nor Republican.
"It's a purple state," said Larry Hugick, chairman of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, the Star Tribune's polling firm. Hugick said party identification tends to fluctuate from election to election, even when the same people are interviewed over time.
GOP chair Tony Sutton and DFL chair Brian Melendez said the party breakdown from the poll sounds about right and that the key to victory may rest with independents. Melendez said the poll seems to show that independents, right now, are breaking toward the DFL.
The poll highlights some strengths for the Democrats -- particularly Dayton -- and some notable weaknesses for Emmer.
In the general election match-ups, the Democrats seem to have particularly wide leads among women and people older than 45. The gap widens among those over 65, where Dayton holds a significant advantage. Emmer's only identifiable strengths were among those who earn more than $75,000 a year and among Minnesotans between age 35 and 44.
Undecideds remain as high as 18 percent for the November election. "There are enough people on the fence that it is hardly in the bag for the Democrats despite this lead," Hugick said.
Close primary on Aug. 10
While the primary remains too close to call, Dayton appears to have the support of 40 percent of those who say they'll vote in the August DFL contest. That compares to 30 percent for Kelliher and 17 percent for Entenza. But Dayton's lead is not outside the margin of error for the smaller subset of primary voters, which is plus or minus 7.8 percentage points. Another 12 percent remain undecided.
Dayton said the numbers almost exactly track what his campaign's polling has found.
Tincher, of the Kelliher campaign, said poll numbers may not be able to gauge the impact of the ground game.
"It is about who is going to show up and vote, and Margaret has the strongest organization to turn out her support," Tincher said.
Dave Colling, Entenza's campaign manager, noted that polls are notoriously unreliable in primaries because so few people end up voting: "The smaller the turnout the more difficult it is to poll," he said.
Dayton appears to have a strong edge among seniors, while Kelliher and Dayton do equally well with female voters.
Hugick said Dayton's strength among reliably voting seniors gives him an advantage, while Kelliher can tap into the DFL party's organizational strength to turn out supporters.
Those who support Dayton hesitated about a key element of his campaign -- higher taxes for those with higher incomes -- but understood the need.
"How else are we going to get the money? If you want to be the best, somebody has to pay for it," said Laura Myers, a 54-year-old teacher from Minneapolis. Myers, who plans to vote for Dayton next week, is a member of Education Minnesota, the teachers' union that endorsed Kelliher.
Kelliher backer Pam Riddle, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom and former teacher, likes Kelliher's support of an increased minimum wage.
"I really oppose her opponent, Tom Emmer -- his views don't match mine," Riddle said.
Poll respondent Peg Capistrant, a 66-year-old retired nurse, found some match between Emmer's views and her own.
He doesn't like big government and "I don't like big government," she said.
How the candidates match up:
DEMOGRAPHICS OF SUPPORT
Source: Star Tribune Minnesota Poll of 831 registered voters (out of a total sample of 902 adults) conducted by telephone and cellphone, July 26-29. Margin of sampling error: No greater than 4.5 percentage points, plus or minus at a 95 percent confidence level.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164