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Pawlenty, Sullivan in battle in Minnesota GOP race

ST. PAUL -- When the Minnesota Wild take to the ice, the outcome always is in doubt -- either they or the opposing team could win. The professional hockey team's home -- Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul -- hosts another match this week...

ST. PAUL -- When the Minnesota Wild take to the ice, the outcome always is in doubt -- either they or the opposing team could win.

The professional hockey team's home -- Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul -- hosts another match this week: On center ice will be two Minnesota Republicans competing for their party's endorsement for governor. And the outcome is just as much in doubt as when the puck drops at a Wild game.

Brian Sullivan and Tim Pawlenty face off Friday when Republicans pick who will be on the Nov. 5 ballot.

"I believe it is a floor fight," the GOP's Bill Walsh said.

Of the 2,216 delegates at the convention, Walsh said, it appears only 100 are not committed.


Straw polls -- not binding on the delegates -- show Sullivan leads in the committed delegates by 47. Pawlenty, the House majority leader, has caught up to Sullivan since the Legislature adjourned last month.

Sullivan, a Twin Cities businessman, took an early lead while Pawlenty was busy in the Legislature.

The virtual dead heat means there is little chance either candidate will get the required 60 percent of the vote on the first ballot Friday morning.

Walsh said many delegates are committed only for the first ballot and could be convinced to switch after that, making the candidates' campaigning on the convention floor key to the endorsement.

"This thing could go on emotion and if one of the guys could start turning people," Walsh said. "I think momentum of the second ballot tells you who is the winner."

Sullivan and Pawlenty both have experienced GOP campaign workers running their floor operations. Staff members will be outfitted with two-way radios and remain in constant touch with a "war room" directing candidates to delegates who are wavering, and will let the candidates know what issues each of those delegates holds dear.

Walsh said the endorsement may well go to the candidate who best sways delegates after voting begins.

"He had a head start," Pawlenty said. "He's spent a bucket of money. He had a 15-point lead at precinct caucuses ... and we've caught him. It's still a dogfight."


Money colors the race. Pawlenty's blue collar supporters say Sullivan is plotting to buy the election with his own funds. Pawlenty has described his opponent as more country club than Sam's Club.

"Any candidate that doesn't think having more money is better than less is lying to you," Sullivan said. "More often than not, for a candidate who hasn't run for office before, you need more resources to introduce yourself. That's just the way it is."

Sullivan stresses that Minnesotans have a history of voting for candidates without much prior political experience: Rudy Boschwitz, David Durenberger and Paul Wellstone, for example.

But those men won Senate races, and the trend doesn't hold for governor. The last time Minnesotans elected a governor with no previous elective experience was Harold LeVander in 1967.

Pawlenty and Sullivan's stands on issues are similar. On a Twin Cities talk radio show last week, for instance, they could point to almost no differences other than their experience in state government.

The biggest difference is whether GOP delegates prefer the outsider Sullivan or veteran lawmaker Pawlenty.

Delegates' decisions likely will hinge on who they think has the better chance of beating Sen. Roger Moe, the DFL candidate, and any others in the race, possibly including Gov. Jesse Ventura.

"The delegates like both of these candidates," Walsh said.


"As we get closer and closer to next Friday," he added, "electability becomes more and more of a factor."

Whoever is endorsed Friday can expect the loser will be at his side on the campaign trail. Like the three major DFL governor candidates, Pawlenty and Sullivan agreed to support the endorsed candidate. That means Friday's winner can hit the campaign trail Saturday, working toward the Nov. 5 general election, not fighting another Republican in a primary election challenge.

In the past few years, state conventions of both major parties have failed to resolve their candidate for major races because many refused to abide by the endorsement.

"The big difference overall is the sense of unity coming out of this," Walsh said.

Walsh, the party's deputy director, said GOP officials worked for that unity.

"Frankly, we put pressure on them" not to take their campaigns to the primary election, he added.

While most attention will be focused on what probably will be Friday's day-long battle for the governor's endorsement, delegates also will put their stamp of approval on other statewide candidates -- all without GOP challengers.

On Thursday night, the convention will endorse former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman for U.S. Senate. He is running against Sen. Paul Wellstone.


Also Thursday night, Mary Kiffmeyer will be endorsed for a second term as secretary of state.

On Saturday morning, delegates are expected to endorse Tom Kelly, a Twin Cities attorney, in the attorney general's race and Eagan Mayor Pat Awada for state auditor.

Delegates Saturday also are expected to rubber-stamp the governor candidate's pick for lieutenant governor.

Sullivan's running mate is southeast Minnesota farmer and state senator Kenric Scheevel. Pawlenty picked state Rep. Carol Molnau of Chaska, another farmer, as his lieutenant governor candidate.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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

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