Candidates woo voters at State Fair

The three gubernatorial candidates took time to speak with individual voters.

The major candidates for governor debate at the Minnesota State Fair on Saturday, Democrat Mark Dayton, left, Republican Tom Emmer, center, and IP candidate Tom Horner, right.  The candidates used the State Fair as a unique opportunity to reach voters and get their message out.

Jason Kopp

The major candidates for governor debate at the Minnesota State Fair on Saturday, Democrat Mark Dayton, left, Republican Tom Emmer, center, and IP candidate Tom Horner, right. The candidates used the State Fair as a unique opportunity to reach voters and get their message out.

James Nord

Nestled among the Space Needle and an endless amount of food on a stick, the three main gubernatorial candidates’ booths at the Minnesota State Fair bustled with activity.

The candidates shook hands, met with voters and prepared for the traditional post-Labor Day campaign surge. The fair, which ended Monday, drew more than 1.2 million people — a big opportunity for Minnesotans to interact personally with the candidates.

Republican nominee Tom Emmer and Independence Party nominee Tom Horner attended the 12-day event almost every day, their campaigns said. Mark Dayton, the DFL-nominee, said he went at least five times.

“I have sympathy for all candidates of all parties at the State Fair,” Horner’s press secretary Matt Lewis said, marveling at the amount of time the candidates spent campaigning there.

Horner may have stood to gain the most from the fair, which offered him face-time, forums and media attention otherwise unavailable to him.

The fair is an important forum to reach a lot of people, Horner said. “Not everybody goes to the Web site.”

But sometimes Horner had to defend his point of view, and he often spent time wrestling over policy with interested voters. More than one passerby asked about his plans to extend the state sales tax to clothing.

Loren Turner, a Clearwater County resident, questioned Horner’s tax plan, which is less progressive than he liked.

Dayton, the only candidate to house his booth under his party’s roof, benefitted from the heavy and diverse traffic moving through the DFL tent, Deputy Campaign Manager Katharine Tinucci said. Plus, she said, it’s a good way to show party unity.

As Dayton walked the campaign trail to the tent, he shook hands and greeted fairgoers along the way, stopping for a moment to grab an ice cream cone.

 Does Dayton like the fair?

“Yeah,” he said, with a smile and a mouthful of ice cream.

As he passed a supporter dragging two toddlers in a red plastic Radio Flyer wagon, the man had one request about the gloomy day. “Could you turn up the heat a little bit?” he asked Dayton, smiling and waving.

Emmer’s booth, a red and blue cabin-like structure with a porch jutting out onto the bustling street, was manned by staffers wearing “Tom Emmer for Governor” hockey jerseys.

They chatted personably with a group of close-knit supporters.

“I knew Jacquie [Emmer’s wife] before Tommy ever did,” one of the staffers said to Dick Borrell, who previously held Emmer’s seat in the House of Representatives.

 “I’m a supporter of Tom Emmer,” Borrell joked afterward, motioning to his hockey jersey, “I don’t know if you can tell that or not.”

Borrell said he chose Emmer because state spending is out of control. Borrell likened the current state of government to parents increasing a child’s allowance until the family can no longer pay for groceries.

Minnesota Public Radio hosted a debate Friday between the three candidates, with discussion ranging from stalwarts like the state’s budget deficit, taxes and education to fresher topics like anti-bullying legislation in schools.

“We came just for the debate. That’s why we came to the fair,” Borrell said, “and of course, there’s always the food.”

The debate seemed to reflect the boisterous atmosphere of the fair itself. The audience yelled and cheered, sometimes drowning out a candidate’s response.

When the candidates were asked if they could work well with the other side, Emmer’s positive answer elicited sarcastic laughs, and Dayton got booed for assigning some blame for the economic recession to former President George W. Bush.

Often, the candidates ignored the rules and spoke over each other or out of turn.

Horner and Dayton berated Emmer on multiple occasions for having not yet released a specific budget proposal, and he fired back at his opponents for relying on government and taxes to solve the state’s problems.

When asked about shutting down higher education institutions in greater Minnesota Dayton opposed doing so, citing the economic benefits higher education brings to communities. Emmer and Horner supported streamlining and reform.