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Impressive Bloodlines In Minnesota Governor's Race

By Stuart Rothenberg

Minnesota Governor The names are the same. Only the faces have changed. That's because the race for Minnesota's Democratic gubernatorial nomination features some of the biggest names in the state's political history. There's a Humphrey, a Mondale and a Freeman. Add a Dayton -- as in the Dayton-Hudson department store chain -- and you have a candidate-packed battle of political heavyweights with impressive bloodlines and plenty of ambition.

Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III, known as "Skip," is the son of the late Minnesota senator, vice president of the United States, and 1968 Democratic nominee for president, Hubert Humphrey. State Sen. Ted Mondale's father, Walter, has identical credentials, having served as a senator, V.P. under Jimmy Carter and been the Democratic party's nominee for president in 1984. Mike Freeman is the son of former governor Orville Freeman, who served as secretary of agriculture in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He ran for the Democratic party endorsement for governor in 1994 but lost it in an upset to a political outsider. The fourth major candidate in the race, former state auditor, doesn't have a famous political father, but he has plenty of money and statewide name recognition.

Minnesota's nominating process is more complicated than that of other states. Most hopefuls seek the party's endorsement at an endorsing convention. Frequently, however, the nomination isn't decided until the primary, with the party backing the endorsed candidate and the other primary hopefuls ranting against "insiders" or arguing that he or she would make a more electable nominee.

Since party activists and ideologues normally participate in the convention process, the primary electorate frequently is more moderate than the candidate selected at the convention, giving other candidates an opportunity to defeat the endorsed candidate in the primary.

Freeman got an early start on the '98 race by running in 1994. He has met and wooed many of the people who will attend the '96 endorsing convention, but, unlike two years ago, he says he won't necessarily abide by the convention's decision. He plans to run in the primary even if he fails to win the endorsement at the convention.

Humphrey lost a 1988 Senate race but has had no trouble being re-elected as attorney general. But he has always suffered when compared to his father, the Happy Warrior of Democratic politics, whose enthusiasm, optimism and political influence was unmatched in the state and, for a time, nationally.

Mondale has been less tied to politics than Humphrey or Freeman, and he has moved further right politically then either of them. An activist in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Mondale presents himself as a "new Democrat" who isn't tied to old political solutions or to partisanship. Since he has not been as active as the other Democrats in the race, he is less well-known to party activists and to the Minnesota electorate in general.

Dayton lost a Senate race in 1982, when he spent $7 million out of his own pocket. He has already started to put together a campaign, and he will be a factor in the gubernatorial race.

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Joanne Bensen and St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, who recently switched to the GOP, are widely mentioned as probable candidates. But all eyes are on former congressman Vin Weber, who has wanted to be governor for years. But Weber has angered conservatives by his pragmatism in making peace with outgoing pro-choice Republican governor Arne Carlson and for his role in the Dole presidential campaign, and he is still distrusted by liberals because of his close association with Newt Gingrich.

Weber is expected to make an announcement shortly about the race. If he runs, he will be favored for the nomination, setting up a mammoth battle in the general election. If he doesn't run, he could well back Coleman. Insiders say Weber's desire for the job is balanced by his desire to cash in financially on his political clout and savvy.

Big political names, a party-switcher, a highly visible former congressman and an open governorship all combine to make Minnesota one of the potentially more interesting gubernatorial contests of 1998. Now we just have to wait and see if the actual contest comes close to equalling the hype.

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Spotlight 1996

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