Over eggs and coffee Saturday morning, Minnesota Republicans shined up what the party chairman called the "crown jewel" of this election year -- newly endorsed candidate for governor, firebrand Tom Emmer.
"We don't have any doubt about what Tom Emmer stands for or what his values are," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said, ceremonially passing the torch to Emmer, the Republican endorsed candidate for governor. "He is strong. He is steadfast. He is clear. ... He is going to be the next governor of the state of Minnesota."
But now the House legislator, who received his party's nod Friday, has to prove to Minnesotans that his values are what the state needs.
His campaign will have to broaden from a smattering of die-hard activists to hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans in the political middle, not deeply beholden to either party. He's got company in that quest. The same pledges and promises candidates make that turn on the party faithful may raise doubts among general election voters. To secure her endorsement, DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher promised to sign a universal health care bill, while DFL primary challenger Mark Dayton has pledged to raise income taxes on the state's wealthy. Meanwhile, both parties need worry about the coming candidate from the small Independence Party, who will pitch that he represents the middle ground.
Emmer appears to be to the right of Pawlenty. State government, he says, should shrink by a full 20 percent and the welfare system dismantled. He considers Arizona's controversial new immigration law that has local police checking immigration status a "wonderful first step."
But the former Division I college hockey player, who has offered more passion than detail in his campaign, is confident his positions will find broad appeal.
"They want their government not telling them how to live -- they want their government serving them and there is a huge difference and that's what we are going to be about all summer. And that's what makes us mainstream," Emmer said.
Moving to the center
In Emmer, the GOP "blessed the more inflammatory of its two leading candidates," DFL Party chair Brian Melendez said. In Kelliher, the DFL picked "the most liberal candidate they have ever endorsed," said GOP deputy chair Michael Brodkorb. Republican officials have characterized Dayton's tax plan as a job killer and paint DFL primary contender Matt Entenza as a millionaire who wants to buy the election.
That Kelliher faces a three-way primary against Dayton and Entenza offers Republicans no end of delight. Emmer faced a more contentious lead-up to his convention win against former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, but once Seifert conceded on Friday, he got firmly behind Emmer.
"How is that for unity?" Republican Party chair Tony Sutton asked, after Seifert clasped Emmer's hand on stage and introduced him as the next governor of Minnesota.
The Democratic primary could prove a bruising, expensive distraction for DFLers. If that August election gets nasty enough, the DFL winner could emerge battered and with little money left to spend through November.
But even Emmer campaign manager David FitzSimmons admits that the coming DFL primary fight has "disadvantages and advantages."
Entenza, Dayton and Kelliher could train much of their attack on Emmer as they work to prove themselves the most electable. They know who they will run against in November; Emmer is still unsure.
While some have doubts about Emmer's universal appeal -- some Seifert supporters say they'll need time to get on board -- he has a charisma that may soften his message.
The father of seven kids can rouse crowds to their feet and claims the same authenticity that brought candidates as diverse as U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, U.S. Sen. Rod Grams and Gov. Jesse Ventura into office.
Meanwhile, the party of Ventura is still out to prove its 1998 victory wasn't a fluke. Even if the Independence Party candidate doesn't take the office, he has the power to tip the race by siphoning off Democratic or Republican votes.
Tom Horner, the leading Independence Party candidate, says he's no spoiler -- he is in it to win. Horner, a partner in the public affairs firm Himle Horner and a former Republican staffer, is vying for IP endorsement among a handful of others next weekend. Democrats take his candidacy as a sign the GOP isn't as united as it claims.
Horner, who has been a political commentator for more than 20 years, says he's sick of both parties.
"The Democrats and Republican parties are very far to the right and to the left," said Horner, who long worked for former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Republican. "I offer an entirely different course."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164 Staff writer Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report