He jokes that “the last time I checked, there are no brain cells in my hip.” Dayton shed his body cast a week early and is on crutches for another week or so.
So far, Republicans have not made a campaign issue of Dayton’s ailments or time away from his office. DFL strategists are quick to point out that former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty spent as much time or more away from the Capitol during his unsuccessful presidential run.
Still, Dayton finds the back and hip problems frustrating.
“I chafe at that, both in terms of the job as well as the campaign,” he said in an interview. “Maybe it hasn’t been ideal, but I have been able to be engaged in the session and I think have a strong influence.” He notes that even if he were in top physical form, he would be focused on the session, not campaigning.
“This session is so crucial as to how I will be perceived by the public in November,” Dayton said. “It’s very consuming.”
Besides, Dayton said, now Minnesotans will get to know Smith, who replaces retiring Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth. Smith, he said, has “the opportunity to go around and have people focus on her, get to know her, to get to like her.”
That is how Smith found herself in Willmar last week, chatting with residents and business owners.
She met with leaders in the growing Latino community to hear their business-development concerns. Later, it was local Somali community elders, who told her of their need for more housing, immigration services and community support.
“I like her,” said Diane Fortney, 55, a high school teacher. “I really feel like she listened to me, that she was engaged.”
GOP sees an opening
Smith is spending extra time in rural areas, where Republicans are counting on strong support if they are to have a shot at beating Dayton.
Former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall is preparing to take advantage of what he sees as the weakness of a ticket that geographically spans Lake Harriet to Summit Avenue.
“I think having an all-metro ticket is a huge mistake,” said Seifert, who must run a primary gantlet before challenging Dayton. “When the major-party candidates play footsie with not having balance, they get burned.”
The Dayton team is already taking on the trappings of a full-fledged campaign operation. Smith tours the state in a white Ford Edge SUV with a full-time staffer at her side. Two more young, khaki-clad staffers collected volunteer names and passed out Dayton campaign signs.
Smith continues to refine her stump speech as she travels.
She is not talking as much about a new $443 million tax-relief package that will put additional money in the pockets of more than 1 million Minnesotans. She found the tax cuts got a lukewarm reaction, with people saying they’re fine, but don’t go overboard and send the state into another cycle of budget cuts and borrowing.
Instead, she is finding some fire talking about the issue Republicans pound DFLers on the most: the state’s work in expanding health insurance. Even with the fumbled rollout of MNsure, the state’s insurance exchange, Smith said she is hearing powerful stories everywhere she goes.
In Worthington, a business owner told her that after struggling with the cumbersome website, he learned he would save $200 on his premium and get coverage for his wife, a cancer survivor.