BRAINERD – Near the end of a 90-minute talk with teachers and administrators here at Harrison Elementary, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith realized that the event to publicize the Dayton administration's push for improved early learning was occurring right after the first day of kindergarten.

"You must be so tired," she said to the group gathered in a small gymnasium. Then she set her microphone on the table and clapped for the teachers — just the kind of off-the-cuff personal touch that has propelled her from longtime DFL insider to Gov. Mark Dayton's lieutenant. And now, many at the Capitol wonder, possibly his successor.

Whether it's talking up prekindergarten funding in Brainerd, touring an egg farm in Wrenshall or touting rural broadband expansion in Luverne, Smith has logged thousands of miles on Minnesota roads since taking office in January. In the process, she has become nearly as much the face of the administration as Dayton himself. And he plans to hand her even more responsibility next year for his second-term agenda.

Just months into the job, Smith is transforming the often obscure role of lieutenant governor. She is in the room when Dayton makes his biggest decisions, and was at the negotiating table — sometimes sitting in for the governor himself — during the high-stakes talks that brought this year's legislative session to a close. That unusual level of influence is fueling growing speculation among Minnesota politicos that Dayton sees his trusted partner as his heir apparent.

"I think she's a real possibility for 2018, with a good chance of being our candidate," said former Vice President Walter Mondale, a political mentor to Smith and one of many prominent Minnesota Democrats who call her friend. "Of course there'll be a heated contest, but you have to put her at the top of the list."

Smith has little to say about the next governor's race, which is certain to feature some of the DFL's biggest names battling to replace the retiring Dayton. "It's hard to say what things will look like a couple of years from now," Smith said in an interview, calling herself undecided about a bid.

'I'll defer to her'

Dayton also demurs at talk of 2018. But he told the Star Tribune recently that he has duties in mind for Smith next year that will elevate her even higher. Dayton plans to make his lieutenant the administration's point person on his two biggest priorities — expanded early learning classes at schools statewide, and major spending to update the state's transportation infrastructure.

"Increasingly," he said, "I'll defer to her decisionmaking on those areas."

It's hard to imagine a more high-profile assignment. For a politician like Smith, who stepped into the public eye only a little more than a year ago, it is not without risk.

"She rises or falls as he does," said Roger Moe, a former state Senate leader and unsuccessful DFL candidate for both governor and lieutenant governor. "That's the gamble she took with this."

A DFL operative dating to the 1990s, Smith was Dayton's chief of staff for most of his first term. In 2014, he pulled her into elected politics by making her his running mate, replacing first-term Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon with someone who would come to be seen as perhaps his closest adviser.

Smith, 57, lives in southwest Minneapolis with her husband, Archie, an investment manager. They have two adult sons. She moved to Minnesota in the 1980s for a marketing job at General Mills and later founded a marketing and public relations firm.

That led to work on a series of DFL campaigns, including as manager of Ted Mondale's 1998 bid for governor, and as an adviser to Walter Mondale's last-minute campaign for U.S. Senate in 2002 following the death of Paul Wellstone. The following year, Smith was recruited to become vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

"She really built our education and outreach efforts," said Sarah Stoesz, the organization's president and CEO. "She's got a pretty strong legacy around here."

It's an association Minnesota Republicans recently have pounced on, after conservatives brought new scrutiny to Planned Parenthood's handling of tissue from aborted fetuses. The Minnesota affiliate doesn't have a program for donating fetal tissue, but that hasn't stopped Republican demands for the state to cut all support for Planned Parenthood.

"I think it's almost totally political," Smith said. "These efforts to defund Planned Parenthood fail because one out of five American women have used Planned Parenthood at one time or another in their life. It's just a bad idea."

Smith left Planned Parenthood in 2006 to take over as chief of staff for then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rybak competed in the 2010 race for governor, tapping Smith to run his campaign. When Dayton emerged victorious, he recruited Smith to join his campaign on the advice of his ex-wife, Alida Messinger, a major Democratic donor.

Team of rivals

This past August, Rybak and Smith mingled over beers with other veterans of his mayoral office at a reunion at Surly Brewing. The one-time political allies and potential 2018 rivals did not discuss their possibly shared ambition.

"Obviously, it would be complicated," said Rybak, who, like Smith, says he's undecided. "But considering how many Democrats are going to run for governor, I would have multiple friends in the race."

That's still three years off, with a presidential and state legislative election to get through first. But DFL donors and interest groups are already starting to hear from some on the lengthy list of viable contenders. Other top DFL prospects include U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, Attorney General Lori Swanson, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, and state Reps. Erin Murphy and Paul Thissen. None would confirm plans to run, but neither did any take themselves out of the running.

"Would we be happy if Tina won? You bet," said Sam Kaplan, a Minneapolis attorney and DFL power broker who is close to Smith. Kaplan and his wife, Sylvia, claim credit for suggesting to Rybak that he bring Smith into his administration. "We'd also be happy if one of the others won, too. It's going to be a difficult time," Kaplan said.

Dayton said it's also too early to talk about whether he'd support a Smith run for governor. "I'm not going to make that decision until she makes her decision," he said.

Second in command

Republicans have noticed the aggressive pace of public appearances the Dayton administration has crafted for Smith, and the ever-broadening scope of her duties.

GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt, widely seen as a gubernatorial prospect for his own party in 2018, has been watching his potential rival closely.

"I get the impression that they're trying to set her up for her own run for office," said Daudt, who often found himself across the negotiating table from Smith rather than Dayton in the last session's closing weeks. "They've certainly put her in a higher profile role than the previous lieutenant governor, and I assume it's because that group around the governor would like to see her in the office herself."

Dayton's advisers counter that because Smith is so new to elected office, it's legitimate to create opportunities for her to become more well-known throughout the state, apart from the question of her own ambitions.

Between early January and mid-September, according to Dayton's office, Smith made more than 160 separate public appearances. A map of her travels includes many destinations in areas where, others have noted, a candidate would want to build support. Smith was omnipresent at the Minnesota State Fair, with nearly 20 separate events, visits and meet-and-greets.

"My face hurts from smiling so much," she told an aide after one fair visit that stretched to several hours. When a reporter overheard the remark, she hastened to add that the grins were genuine.

Indeed, Smith excels at the kind of light, friendly banter that makes up so much of the interaction between politicians and the public. She's become adept at town hall-style settings like the Brainerd school visit, where she asked serious and substantial questions that recalled her years as a focus group moderator when she worked in marketing.

"The chance to talk to so many people and understand what they're thinking about and why it matters is really, really so interesting," Smith said. Running focus groups helped her learn that skill, she said: "When you're doing that, you have to truly listen to what people are saying. You can't just pretend to listen."

The task ahead

The Dayton administration hopes to put Smith's marketing skills to work in the coming months as it gears up for the 2016 legislative session. Through the fall and winter, Smith will anchor more school forums aimed at building momentum for the push to bring prekindergarten classes to every Minnesota public school.

"For heaven's sake, there are states that are led by Republicans that have moved faster and more completely to put preschool into place for everyone than we have in this state," Smith said.

In terms of achieving legislative priorities, Dayton's second term is off to a rocky start; both his early learning and transportation funding plans were stymied during the 2015 session. Next year, the onus will be on Smith to change that.

"It's not so much to develop her identity as it is to make our work more efficient and hopefully, effective," Dayton said. He said he would take the lead on mining and water quality issues, she on transportation and education, and the two would share the workload on taxes and bonding.

"If she can get better results than I, more power to her," Dayton said.

Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049