Politicians are swarming the State Fair, but they might have to dip themselves in chocolate and jump on a pogo stick to get any attention from fairgoers.
At a DFL gubernatorial candidates debate at the State Fair on Tuesday, sound engineer Justin Winick, left, passed a working microphone to host Mike McIntee, while former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton prepared his notes and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner tested the malfunctioning microphone.
Rick Wallach had a ready list of things he wanted to do at the State Fair on Tuesday: stops at the Moo Booth and the eco-house, a concert of live Brazilian music and, of course, eating "a lot" of food.
What about visiting with politicians plying their wares?
"NO, I DON'T WANT TO WASTE MY TIME TALKING TO POLITICIANS," he said, waiting for his wife to finish a cholesterol check at the Health Building.
Corralling the attention of folks like Wallach with Election Day more than a year away is a challenge for the many candidates vying to replace Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. They're out in force at the fair, campaigning for the traction that could catapult them ahead of the pack.
But bunches of fairgoers said Tuesday that they had come for fun and food -- not politics.
That didn't stop the politicians.
Seven Democrats hoping to take over the governor's office gathered in a debate Tuesday evening on Machinery Hill. The debate was sponsored and aired by liberal-friendly online outlet The UpTake and KTNF (950 AM) "Air America" radio.
In front of a small crowd, the group talked about health care, the police reaction to last year's Republican convention, ranked-choice voting, state aid to local governments and their ideas for cooperation and compromise.
The candidates -- state lawmakers Tom Bakk, Tom Rukavina and Paul Thissen, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, and former lawmakers Matt Entenza and Steve Kelley -- largely agreed, but showed some differences in their passions. Two other DFL candidates -- state Sen. John Marty and state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher -- were invited but had scheduling conflicts.
At the debate, almost all dissed Pawlenty, but Rukavina, long the governor's political sparring partner, was the sharpest. "This governor has really been a crybaby and a little spoiled brat," he said.
The candidates voiced some support for restoring the recent cuts in local government aid, known as LGA.
But Entenza made no guarantees. Helping local governments is important, but, Entenza said, "LGA is not my top priority. ... A governor can't do everything."
All spoke of the need to be realistic about rasing taxes or finding more revenue, but Dayton was clearest. "I'm going to raise taxes on the wealthiest people in Minnesota," he said.
On the police reaction to last year's convention, Gaertner, criticized for prosecuting some of convention opponents, said that on the first day of the convention, when she saw window-breaking protesters on one side and riot-geared National Guard members on the other, it was "one of the saddest days of my life in St. Paul."
And, she promised, the RNC is "not coming back as long as I'm governor."
Republican candidates face an equally crowded field and have logged plenty of fair time. GOP state House Minority Leader Marty Seifert even set up his own booth.
"Have you heard about Marty Seifert yet?" a volunteer asked a passerby.
"No, I haven't," came the reply. The man accepted a Seifert brochure, but didn't stop.
"Most people are not that engaged right now," said Dean Barkley, the state's U.S. senator-for-a-moment after being appointed in 2002. Barkley said he might run for governor next year but it's too early to decide.
Barkley said he senses a lot of angst among Minnesotans, but they appear to need a break from politics.
It doesn't look like that is going to happen.
Almost two score of politicians have filed papers to setup gubernatorial fundraising committees. That doesn't include the mayors of both Twin Cities and a GOP state representative who are acting as if they will soon join the fray.
And at the fair, all are up against serious competition to grab voters' attention.
And sometimes that means the attention-grabbing is almost literal: "They are willing to talk to me -- I just grab 'em," said Rukavina. He politely accosted the Ziemanns from Prior Lake as they happened by his table.
Diane Ziemann asked: "So, you're going to run for governor?" Yes, Rukavina confirmed.
Later, Ziemann said she wants to hear how both parties are going to fund education. But she's not ready to focus on the 2010 election yet.
Maybe, she said, next spring.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164