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'The L' you say? It's key to governor race

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota governor candidates need to get The L out.

Get people in "The L" out to vote, that is. Those in The L are voters in the western and southern parts of the state, an area that would form an "L" on the map. Most L voters do not vote party line, so are prime targets of campaigns.

"Particularly for Republicans running statewide, if you don't carry The L, you don't win the race," said state Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, who lost the GOP governor nomination to Tom Emmer last April.

"There is a mix of independent people out there," added former state Rep. Doug Peterson, DFL-Madison, who is Minnesota Farmers Union president. "Those people are looking at what these candidates can do or cannot do for them."

Many of them have not made up their minds about who to support in the Nov. 2 election.

"People tend to take their time and think through who they are going to vote for in elections," Emmer Campaign Manager Cullen Sheehan said about L residents.

The L stretches from the Canadian border down the western part of Minnesota all the way to Iowa, then across the southern counties to the Mississippi River. It is a farm-dominated economy with an aging population that tends to vote in large numbers.

Democrats usually do well in Minneapolis, St. Paul and northeastern Minnesota. The GOP traditionally has done better in the suburbs (although Democratic-Farmer-Laborites have scored some significant wins there recently). That leaves The L as the battle ground.

"It would almost be campaign malpractice not to be spending as much time as possible ... in the (rural) regional centers," Sheehan said.

But in the 6-week-old general election campaign, major candidates Emmer, Democrat Mark Dayton and Tom Horner of the Independence Party have not slipped out of the Twin Cities often. A dozen debates and the need to raise money kept their travel schedules slim.

"I don't know that anybody is running a real thorough rural campaign right now," Seifert said. That leads to his conclusion: "I think it is anybody's race right now, it really is."

State Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, a Dayton supporter, said Emmer must work The L hard to upset Dayton, a former U.S. senator who has good name recognition statewide thanks to his long political life and his family founding Dayton's department store.

"Emmer cannot just depend on the suburbs and Rochester and wherever the Republican strongholds are," Juhnke said. "He has to work here in swing country, and it is swing country."

The Dayton campaign points to past elections, where southern and western voters have backed him.

"He is the only candidate who has traveled to every county in this campaign, and he knows that there is more to Minnesota than the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area," Deputy Dayton Campaign Manager Katharine Tinucci said.

Sheehan said Emmer will spend time in The L. Much of that time will be along U.S. 14 across southern Minnesota and Interstate 94 from the Twin Cities to Moorhead, Sheehan said.

Horner sent running mate Jim Mulder to cover rural Minnesota, although Horner plans campaign swings, too.

"I have been traveling it as much as I can," Mulder said. "In the next couple of weeks, I think I am exclusively in the L."

Mulder is former executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, so he has extensive contacts with county leaders statewide.

None of the three governor candidates hails from rural Minnesota. Dayton lieutenant governor candidate Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth is the only one who lives outside the Twin Cities.

Kevin Paap, Minnesota Farm Bureau president, said he hopes The L is important to candidates because "it is very important to Minnesota."

Politicians should remember the state is seventh-largest ag producing state, Paap said.

Farmers are just beginning to tune into the election process, he said.

"We are going to spend more time on our tractors and combines," Paap added, where they will hear radio reports on campaign activity. Those who use global positioning equipment to steer their equipment also will read about politics on devices such as iPhones.

While candidates struggle to cover large areas of rural Minnesota, a record number of Twin Cities debates will continue.

"I think what you will see is a campaign shooting down to Rochester and back to a debate or shooting to Willmar and back to a debate," Sheehan said.

The latest poll numbers show a close Dayton-Emmer race statewide and the same in most of rural Minnesota, although a SurveyUSA-KSTP poll in recent days gave Dayton a 44 percent to 30 percent lead in the northeast. In other parts of the state, the two were in a virtual tie.

Horner did his best in southern Minnesota, where he obtained 22 percent support, and the northeast, where he earned 20 percent.

The poll numbers show that for the Horner-Mulder ticket, The L takes on special importance. "We think that is our best opportunity," Mulder said.

"The last three weeks it will be a horse race," Mulder said. "That is where rural Minnesota becomes important. That is when the margin will make a difference."

Political observers say it still is early and voters in The L have not decided on a governor pick.

"Out here we talk about how good the corn is," Juhnke said.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.