The 2002 campaign season officially began Tuesday night, as Minnesotans gathered in community centers and school gymnasiums for precinct caucuses. The neighborhood gatherings are the first step in the process of choosing candidates for the November election. In an early sign of party support, Republican caucus attendees favored gubernatorial candidate Brian Sullivan over Tim Pawlenty 51 percent to 37 percent.
This year, precinct caucuses have added significance, because all of the major Republican and DFL candidates for governor say they'll drop out of the race if they don't win party endorsement at the state conventions. Orono businessman Brian Sullivan says coming in first in the Republican straw poll is a big boost to his campaign.
"I think it's a pretty big upset victory. And I also think it's a pretty strong indication that my campaign has the momentum and the strong volunteer support we need to win the endorsement," Sullivan said. "I think it became a contest between one candidate with real world experience, and one candidate with political experience."
Sullivan's main rival for the endorsement - House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty of Eagan - says he's not surprised by his second-place showing. He says he considers Sullivan the front runner, because Sullivan has been running television ads and wooing party activists since last year.
"Clearly his money and the ads that he was able to buy...were a factor, and he was pretty ferocious on his attacks on my voting record. We didn't have a chance to explain all of that," Pawlenty said. "But you know, caps off to him, he's run a good campaign. I think the main factor is, he's spent a ton of money and had a year head start."
Pawlenty says straw polls have been poor predictors of the endorsement, so he thinks he still has a good shot to win party backing.
The straw poll of Green Party caucus participants showed Ken Pentel, the party's gubernatorial candidate in 1998, with a strong lead over his opponents for party endorsement, Nick Raleigh, Roy Tricomo and Stephen Adams.
The other two major parties, the DFL and Independence parties, chose not to poll caucus attendees. DFL officials say the polls are inaccurate and difficult to administer.
Without a poll to predict early success, the three major DFL candidates for governor made the rounds of Twin Cities' caucuses. All three stopped by Roseville High School to try to win over party activists.
Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe of Erskine told caucus attendees he's been working on DFL issues longer than any other candidate during his 30-plus years at the Capitol.
"And I think that I can say - even a little more than the other candidates - that my DFL credentials are I think what you would like to see," Moe said.
One of Moe's rivals for party endorsement, State Sen. Becky Lourey of Kerrick, also stressed her party purity.
"I live and breathe our DFL principles. And I have the record to show that I can put these principles into action," Lourey said. "And so I stand before you here, because together, you and I can endorse and win, and make Minnesota the Minnesota once again that we know we can be."
Lourey, one of the more liberal members of the Legislature, says Minnesota won't be a better state by moving to the middle.
The third candidate seeking the DFL endorsement for governor, state Auditor Judi Dutcher of Minnetonka, is a former Republican. She told party activists she's the candidate who can reach out to disgruntled Republicans and independents.
"I am somebody that not only will appeal to the DFL base, but more importantly, reach across party borders to those independent voters who share our passion for good public schools, for support for working families in the state," she said.
Dutcher says her strength is in the suburbs, and if she's on the ticket, she'll bring suburban votes to help re-elect DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone, who's facing a tough race against Republican Norm Coleman. But while some caucus attendees sported Dutcher buttons or Moe or Lourey stickers, many say they're still undecided about who to support for governor.
The gubernatorial race in the Independence Party is even more in flux. Gov. Jesse Ventura says he probably won't announce whether he's running again until the party convention in July. He stopped by a caucus in Maple Grove, attended by about a dozen people. He says it's up to caucus participants to expand the party base.
"Party-building doesn't come from me. My job's to run the government," said Ventura. "I would love to, but I don't have the time to build a party."
Ventura says the party should have a back-up candidate in mind in case he decides not to run again - and he says that person should agree to drop out if Ventura does decide he wants the job for another four years.