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Poll: Pawlenty has mixed approval ratings
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Forty-eight percent of those polled rate the governor's job performance as good or excellent. (Mason-Dixon Polliing & Research)
A new Minnesota Public Radio-St. Paul Pioneer Press poll finds nearly half of those polled think Gov. Pawlenty is doing a good or excellent job. It's the first poll to ask about the governor's job performance since he was elected in November. Pawlenty supporters say the numbers are surprisingly high, coming after the governor released a budget that makes major spending cuts in a number of areas. Political observers say his approval rating could drop after the full impact of those cuts is known.

St. Paul, Minn. — Mason-Dixon Polling and Research polled 625 registered Minnesota voters a week ago, right after Gov. Pawlenty released his budget proposal. The governor wants to eliminate a projected $4.2 billion deficit without raising taxes. Forty-eight percent of those polled rate the governor's job performance as good or excellent.

One of them, Nancy McLain, 49, of Prior Lake, says she thinks the governor is doing a good job. But as a teacher, McLain says she has some concerns about the governor's proposed budget.

I think the pledge (not to raise taxes) was a nice gimmick to get elected.
- Donald Temberull, poll respondent

"Well, I think he's trying really hard. And he's trying to do the right things. I think the points against it would be freezing teachers' pay would be real hard, especially for teachers that are getting ready to retire," she said.

Twenty-seven percent of poll respondents rate the governor's job performance as fair, eight percent say he's doing a poor job, and 17 percent are undecided.

Poll respondent Donald Temberull, 65, of Freeport says he gave the governor a ranking of fair. The township supervisor and semi-retired accountant says he doesn't agree with Pawlenty's no-tax-increase pledge.

"I think the pledge was a nice gimmick to get elected ... I don't know how you can even maintain - you know, with increasing costs - how you can even maintain services - course, he's said you're going to cut services, but I just think it's impossible."

Pawlenty says not everyone agrees with his stance. But he says the MPR-Pioneer Press poll found that most Minnesotans want him to balance the budget without raising taxes.

"I got elected to solve a big crisis, and that's what we're trying to do. And I think Minnesotans understand we got a huge mess, and it's my job to clean it up. And it probably will be unpopular for awhile, but I think they'll appreciate the work once the problem is solved and we get Minnesota back on a solid ground," Pawlenty said.

The governor's chief of staff, Charlie Weaver, thinks the poll numbers are a good show of support for Pawlenty under difficult circumstances. Weaver says a governor's approval rating is usually directly related to the state of the economy.

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Weaver used to work for Gov. Jesse Ventura, whose approval rating started out higher than Pawlenty's numbers. The first MPR-Pioneer Press poll after Ventura's election found 57 percent of those polled thought Ventura was doing a good or excellent job.

"Gov. Ventura came in with a big surplus. Lots of money to spend, he was able to be creative and focus on some issues, spend a ton of money on K-12 early; it's easy to look really good when you've got money in the bank. It's hard to look good when you're in a deficit. That's why I think it's remarkable that there's only a nine-point difference between Gov. Ventura and Gov. Pawlenty, given the huge disparity in where they started," according to Weaver.

"I think the poll numbers reflect that it was a very short honeymoon," says John Hottinger, the Senate Majority Leader. The Democrat from St. Peter says Pawlenty's approval rating is surprisingly low, less than two months into his term.

"The rhetoric you hear from political consultants is if it's under 50 percent at any point, you got a problem," he said.

Hottinger says Pawlenty's numbers are partly a reflection of tough budget times. But Hottinger says the poll also indicates that Minnesotans worry about the impact of the governor's budget.

Gustavus Adolphus political science professor Chris Gilbert says Gov. Pawlenty was able to effectively convey his message prior to the release of his budget. But Gilbert says as the criticism gets louder -- particularly from local officials opposed to cuts in city aid -- Pawlenty's approval rating may suffer.

"Round one of the rhetorical debate about this plan certainly goes to the governor. The one thing Gov. Pawlenty has not done very well so far is respond to criticisms. His responses have been far too glib, and frankly, far too uninformed about the concerns that local officials have. Minnesota local government has a reputation for being rather careful with the public's dollar, and delivering a pretty significant amount of services for what people pay," Gilbert said.

Gilbert says Gov. Pawlenty could be blamed for tax hikes at the local level.

The poll also tracked the approval rating of Minnesota's U.S. senators. Forty-five percent of those polled say DFLer Mark Dayton is doing a good or excellent job, while 50 percent give high marks to newly-elected Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. The poll's sampling margin of error is plus or minus four-percentage points.

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