Five weeks before Minnesotans elect a new governor, DFL candidate Mark Dayton leads GOP rival Tom Emmer among likely voters, with Independence Party candidate Tom Horner gaining ground, a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found.

In the three-way race, Dayton leads Emmer 39 to 30 percent, nearly unchanged from a July Minnesota Poll. Horner is at 18 percent, up from 13 percent in July.

Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said the poll "sounds like good news" but added, "There's 38 days to go, and we're going to continue to work hard."

Emmer spokesman Carl Kuhl said, "This just shows once again that this is a competitive race that's going to go down to the wire, and we're going to continue to work hard toward the only poll that matters, on November 2nd."

Horner's improved showing appears to be the result of winning over some voters who recently made up their minds. But his support is significantly softer than that of his opponents, with only 2 percent of likely voters saying their support for Horner is strong.

Horner spokesman Matt Lewis attributed the soft support to Horner not being "as well defined as Emmer or Dayton." He predicted Horner would gain attention in coming debates and other public appearances. "We're moving in the right direction," Lewis said.

The poll of 949 likely voters, taken Sept. 20-23, suggests that little has changed in voters' minds since the last Minnesota Poll in July, despite two intensive months of harsh advertising, almost daily debates and new details from all the candidates on how they plan to address the state's daunting budget deficit.

Dayton's lead is outside the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. The telephone poll included cell phone users, who are considered more likely to lean Democratic than people who use only landlines.

Favorable, unfavorable views

The poll also suggests that Emmer may face a significant challenge in selling himself to voters. Only 40 percent viewed him favorably, and 41 percent viewed him unfavorably. Behind those numbers is a gender gap: 46 percent of men had a favorable impression of Emmer but only 35 percent of women did.

Dayton, a former U.S. senator, was viewed favorably by 51 percent and unfavorably by 38 percent of all likely voters. Horner was seen favorably by 38 percent and unfavorably by 28 percent.

Dayton's higher favorable ratings suggest he hasn't been seriously hurt by TV ads from Emmer allies that call him erratic and draw attention to his admitted shortcomings in the Senate.

Emmer, in turn, has slightly less name recognition than Dayton and may have been hurt by ads run by DFL allies that have highlighted his drunken-driving arrests decades ago.

Despite reported disaffection for Emmer among some business owners, the poll detects little erosion in support from Republican voters. Horner, whom some business leaders consider an alternative to Emmer, drew only slightly more from traditionally Republican voters than from Democrats.

In a hypothetical two-way race, Dayton holds a 49-38 edge over Emmer.

The poll revealed apparent strengths and weaknesses of the two leading candidates.

Dayton, Emmer tied outstate

While Republicans typically count on doing well in outstate Minnesota, Emmer and Dayton are neck-and-neck there, with 35 percent apiece. Dayton is ahead in the seven-county metro area.

Men split about evenly between Emmer and Dayton, but only 26 percent of women favor Emmer while 44 percent support Dayton.

Dayton, who has made raising taxes on the wealthy a theme of his campaign, holds a 48-22 lead over Emmer among voters earning between $30,000 and $50,000, and a slight lead over Emmer among those earning more than $75,000.

Horner's improved showing comes as the number of undecided voters dwindles. In the July poll, 17 percent of voters indicated they were undecided, but the latest figure is only 12 percent.

The Minnesota Poll findings are at odds with a Rasmussen poll of 500 likely voters on Sept. 22 that showed the race to be a virtual dead heat, with Emmer at 42 percent and Dayton at 41 percent while Horner trailed with 9 percent. Rasmussen uses automated, recorded calls to people who use landline phones and may pick up a bigger share of Republican-leaning voters.

Reasons for support

Brad Greenway, 40, said Dayton relates to the concerns of average Minnesotans.

"I think he has a better handle on what regular Minnesotans are going through right now," said Greenway, who is unemployed and lives in Beltrami County south of Bemidji. "Emmer seems much more out of touch, especially with the problems we have up here. He and Horner just don't connect."

But St. Paul real estate agent Don Peterson said Emmer is the one looking out for Minnesotans.

"I'm pretty much a Tea Party conservative, and we've got to cut both spending and taxes," said Peterson, 58. "Emmer's the most business-friendly of the three, and I'm looking for the most conservative candidate on the ballot."

Elizabeth Hustad, 18, a University of Minnesota student who lives in Minneapolis, backs Horner for taking a middle road.

"I'm conservative, but I don't like how far Emmer's going, and he seems a little too concerned with social issues instead of focusing on our economic problems," she said. "Horner's done that and isn't talking about radical changes like Dayton's push for higher taxes or Emmer's idea of having a tip credit." • 612-673-7184 pdoyle@startribune • 651-222-1210

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