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Capital chase: Moe, Pawlenty, Penny in virtual dead heat

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota governor's race focuses on budgets as Election Day nears. Voters are concerned about their household budgets and how the three major candidates would deal with a state budget deficit Gov.

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota governor's race focuses on budgets as Election Day nears.

Voters are concerned about their household budgets and how the three major candidates would deal with a state budget deficit Gov. Jesse Ventura predicts will top $3 billion.

Candidates, while talking about the two budgets that voters give priority, also must consider their dwindling campaign accounts in the campaign's waning days.

"It's going to be a pocketbook election," DFL candidate Roger Moe said.

Ventura pleads with candidates and reporters to concentrate on what can be done to fix the budget deficit as the Nov. 5 election nears. He complains that his would-be replacements and the media are ignoring the state's biggest issue.


Despite Ventura's criticism, the three major candidates have fielded question after question about the expected deficit, and all say it is too early to lay out specific budget-balancing proposals. Specifics in dealing with the state's economy also are slim.

However, candidates say they can give voters good ideas about how they would handle the budget problem and the economy.

Republican Tim Pawlenty simplifies his approach to the sound bite: "We are going to squeeze government, not squeeze families any more by asking them to pay more taxes."

He accuses his two main opponents -- Moe and Tim Penny of the Independence Party -- of promising to raise taxes.

Pawlenty has promised not to raise taxes and says he will veto any tax increase to cross his desk if he is elected. Moe and Penny say they want to raise the gasoline tax to increase transportation funding, but do not commit themselves to any other tax increase. The two say they prefer a mix of making budget cuts and increasing taxes, if needed, to balance the budget.

Moe, Penny and Pawlenty were in a virtual tie in the most recent media polls, and all predicted a close race. Ken Pentel of the Green Party trailed far, far behind and three other candidates were not even on voters' radar screens.

Like the 1998 race in which Ventura upset big-name opponents Norm Coleman and Hubert "Skip" Humphrey, this year's race likely will be won by someone with slightly more than a third of the vote.

The race for the four-year job, which pays $114,506 a year, is being overshadowed by the U.S. Senate race. Also taking attention away were the Minnesota Twins competing in baseball's playoffs.


The three top candidates and Pentel have broadcast television commercials and appeared in more than two dozen debates. They have traveled the state, with stories running in small-town newspapers and interviews airing on radio and television stations. But the race does not have the estimated $30 million being spent on the Senate contest.

As election day nears the candidate with the most dough may be in the driver's seat.

Pawlenty's campaign rain afoul of a state campaign-regulation law, and is being forced to pay for commercials originally funded by the Republican Party. That unexpected expense chopped $600,000 of the House majority leader's $2.2 million campaign budget, with more than $1 million spent before the state board's ruling.

Published reports indicate the Moe campaign also is in financial trouble. The long-time Senate majority leader's campaign apparently over-spent in its early days and not enough time was devoted to raising funds, meaning Moe may fall short of the $2.2 million spending limit placed on campaigns that receive state money.

Penny never expected his campaign to hit the limit because his Independence Party -- which also includes Ventura -- is not the money-raiser that Republican and Democratic parties are.

As the three campaign budgets appear to be nearing equality, Penny's running mate said that may be an advantage for their team.

"We still have money," Martha Robertson said. "We still have a full advertising schedule."

If the campaigns are concerned about their budgets, Minnesotans are more concerned about their own finances. All three candidates claim to be the best to solve economic problems around the state.


Moe and Penny say they know best how to help rural Minnesota because that is where they live. Pawlenty points to awards he has won for working on rural economic issues.

Moe said the entire state can be best helped by "investing in its people." For instance, he said, education needs to be improved.

A cookie-cutter approach will not work in rural areas, the senator said. Each area must be developed based on its strengths, he added.

In western Minnesota, from Canada to Iowa, wind power is a potential moneymaker, Moe said. Like the other candidates, Moe preaches the importance of value-added agriculture, taking raw materials and processing them to keep more profits in Minnesota.

"I was instrumental in developing the ethanol industry," Moe said about the corn-based fuel.

For Penny, an economic key is to actively promote and recruit new jobs and industry -- everywhere in Minnesota. He said when Twin Cities firms want to expand, he will encourage them to do so in rural Minnesota.

Improving the public's work skills also is important, Penny said. He promised to do a better job of linking state agencies such as higher education and economic development to help workers.

"What we need to do in rural Minnesota is all about collaboration," he said.


Penny discounts Pawlenty's concept of developing some regions of the state into tax-free zones, which Penny said is "picking winners and losers."

But Pawlenty said that his tax-free zone concept -- which has worked in Michigan and Pennsylvania -- would help rural Minnesotans who face the roughest economy.

His proposal would eliminate taxes in up to a dozen communities, in theory making them more attractive to new businesses and easing the burden on economically strapped residents.

"If we continue doing that we are doing now, we are going to be unsuccessful," Pawlenty said. "We need a healthy whole state."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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