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Campaign 2000: Is Minnesota in Play?
By Art Hughes
June 9, 2000
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President Clinton's commencement address to the graduates of Carleton College marks the third appearance in Minnesota in six weeks. The visits are a boon for state Democrats, but it may also indicate a perceived slump in support for the party.
The Carleton Speech
Listen to President Clinton's commencement speech at the 2000 commencement of Carleton College in Northfield.

CLINTON'S COMMENCEMENT address is a big deal for Carleton College and a strong boost for DFLers. But Carleton political science professor Steven Schier says the presidential visit isn't necessarily part of a bigger political strategy. "The fact that it's in Minnesota is probably a plus, I don't think it was at the center of the decision," Schier says. "This was decided several months ago on a separate track from any political visits that are scheduled more closer to the event."

In early May, Clinton visited St. Paul to praise the City Academy Charter School. Later that month he appeared at a farm in Shakopee to promote normalized trade with China. Carleton's is one of the three commencement addresses Clinton makes each year and it will probably be the last during his presidency. Schier says Clinton's choice was partly fortuitous and partly because White House advisor Tom Friedman is a 1985 graduate of Carleton.

"Carleton had to have alums in the right position in the White House staff in order to get this particular result. And fortunately we did and we're very grateful."

Schier says the speech will likely touch on a variety of broad themes as is usual for presidents at such events. Of course the democrats won't waste the opportunity.

Following the Carleton ceremony, the Democratic Party has scheduled fundraisers in Minneapolis, during which organizers will play up the young voter angle. Fans who share affection for the president and Twin Cities pop music icons Soul Asylum can drop $100 to see them all on stage at Minneapolis' hip Fine Line Music Cafe on First Avenue. MTV will be there. It's the type of event that appeals to a voter demographic unearthed by Jesse Ventura's campaign for governor; people like 23-year-old Natalie Peterson.
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"The first time I ever voted was in the gubernatorial race in '98," she says. "After reading up on it, I decided that Jesse Ventura wasn't really the candidate for me and Skip Humphrey actually seemed to be more of a sensible choice."

Peterson, a third-year dentistry student at the University of Minnesota, says the Fine Line event is the first political fundraiser she's contributed to. Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Mike Erlandson says voters such as Peterson are what each candidate is fighting for. "In the '80s we called them 'Reagan Democrats,' in the '90s we called them 'Clinton Republicans,' and in 1998 we called them, 'Democratic folks who voted for Jesse Ventura,'" says Erlandson. "So it's important for all political parties to reach out to the people that are in the middle, the people that are searching for an identity in politics and really look at the political person sometimes more than the issues."

As for the Democrats' top candidate, Vice President Al Gore, polls have shown that he leads opponent George W. Bush in Minnesota, but by a margin thinner than one would expect in a prominently Democratic state. Erlandson says Clinton's appearance here can only help Gore's chances. "When you don't who somebody is, it's easy to say, 'Well, I know a lot about candidate Gore, I don't know much about George Bush,'" says Erlandson. "So it's not surprising that slightly less that 50 percent of people are identifying with a George Bush-type of a person. As we head into the summer and fall, people will have more of an identity of who George Bush is, or actually probably who George W. Bush isn't and I think that margin will grow back."

Minnesotans may indeed learn more about Bush. State Republican Chair Ron Eibensteiner says he expects the Texas governor to visit Minnesota later this summer. He says the Bush campaign is showing more interest in Minnesota since their own polls show the candidates running dead even.

"In the past in the list of priorities Minnesota wasn't very high," says Eibensteiner. "But based on what they hear and what they're seeing they will be making a call, will be coming up and George W. will be coming to Minnesota."

Eibensteiner says Clinton's frequent visits are a sign Democrats know they're struggling in this state. Minnesota has not gone to a Republican presidential candidate since 1972.

To some degree, the president's arrival promises to trump the news value of the state Republican convention in Rochester where the party is endorsing Rod Grams for another term in the Senate. Republican leaders are dubious of Democrats' explanations that it's coincidence the two events are happening simultaneously.

The relatively non-traditional Democratic fundraiser at the Fine Line is accompanied by another, pricier affair at the adjacent martini-and-cigar bar Club Ashe. Party leaders say Clinton's appearance could bring in as much as a million dollars for the DFL and the Democratic National Committee.