This summer, the most desirable Minnesotans may have a bit of gray in their hair.

As Democratic gubernatorial candidates woo potential primary voters, they'll pay particular attention to the well-seasoned.

Senior citizens make up less than 13 percent of the state's population, but campaigns estimate that they will account for at least half of all voters in the August primary. One campaign estimates up to 80 percent of this summer's primary voters will be 50 and older.

"The number of senior votes? That's the real deal," said Dave Colling, campaign manager for gubernatorial contender Matt Entenza. "That's a huge part of the electorate."

With a competitive, three-way primary among DFLers Entenza, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, no campaign is willing to yield any demographic to the others.

The senior vote is always coveted, but this year may play an even larger role. With the first-ever August primary and no Senate or presidential race on the ballot, younger voters may tune out of summer politics. Seniors, among the most reliable of voters, are also fully tuned in.

"I think they are more engaged than ever, at a level I've never really seen before," said Michele Kimball, state director of AARP Minnesota.

Head start

In the race for retirees, Dayton has a head start.

When he ran for U.S. Senate in 2000, Dayton directed much of his pitch squarely at seniors. He volunteered for menial jobs at senior centers across the state. He arranged bus trips to Canada to help them buy cheaper prescription drugs. Once elected, he stressed work with seniors during his one Senate term.

Now he appears ready to tap that vein again. Dana Anderson, Dayton's campaign manager, was reluctant to talk specifics, but some elements of the campaign's strategy are evident.

When Dayton named Duluth state Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon as his running mate, he said that his lieutenant governor would host a "senior citizens service center," with a toll-free number to help older folks wend through state government issues.

Pre-primary, Prettner Solon said that "I will be visiting a lot of the senior centers in greater Minnesota, meeting with citizens and finding out what it is that they are interested in." Prettner Solon said she plans to visit senior centers in legislative districts across the state, particularly in her northern home base.

Dayton's rivals acknowledge his head start.

"There is certainly no question he did have an edge with seniors in 2000," said Colling, of the Entenza campaign.

Colling isn't sure that edge will hold into 2010. A recent SurveyUSA poll found Dayton and Kelliher were nearly matched among the 50-plus crowd when pitted against GOP candidate Tom Emmer.

Targeting seniors

Entenza's appeal to seniors will be targeted, Colling said, "right down to the individual person."

The turnout for the August primary is expected to be so small that focusing person-to-person is possible, he said. That could mean phone calls to individual voters, targeted mailings and strategic visits. Entenza's latest television ad features the candidate talking to seniors, among others.

Because September has been Minnesota's traditional primary month, no one is quite sure how many voters -- and which ones -- will surface in August. Some estimate the DFL primary could be won with fewer than 200,000 votes. Campaigns are betting that older Minnesotans will have an outsized presence.

Jamie Tincher, Kelliher's campaign manager, said that voters older than 50 could account for as much as 80 percent of DFL primary turnout.

But Tincher said the Kelliher campaign will not tailor its message to fit certain demographics.

"We definitely do not have a different message for seniors than anybody else," she said. However, she said, the campaign does put a "special priority" on having Kelliher speak to retiree groups and making contact with seniors. Kelliher also frequently mentions on the campaign trail that the state needs "cabinet-level" oversight of aging and senior services.

"A lot of our seniors want to see a future for Minnesota that holds the same promise that their Minnesota held for their children and grandchildren," Tincher said. "I think seniors, like all of the voters, are going to be looking for someone that they believe is going to fight for the right priorities."

No gray monolith

Tina Smith, a veteran political operative who ran Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's defunct bid for governor, said candidates should not assume that seniors are a monolithic voting bloc. A senior voter in Hibbing probably has more in common with other Hibbing voters, she said, than with a senior voting in Eden Prairie. "Our vision of a senior voter is kind of stuck in the 1950s," she said. "You'd be better off trying to target your communications specifically to the issues that people care about."

Kimball, of the AARP, said her members have diverse interests, but the economy is very much on their minds.

They'll be looking at gubernatorial candidates "in a couple of different ways," Kimball said. "What are they going to be doing or proposing to protect them and what are their ideas to make the quality of life in Minnesota better? ... It all comes down to pocketbooks and safety."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164