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Sen. Mark Dayton marks halfway point of first term
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Dayton got elected to the Senate on his second try. He lost his first bid in the early 1980s when he took on Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Minnesota U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., is marking the halfway point of his first term with plans to increase his visibility and to begin raising the millions of dollars he says he'll need for his 2006 re-election campaign. Dayton was elected to the Senate in 2000 after a campaign against Republican incumbent Senator Rod Grams. The liberal Democrat says earlier than expected Republican attacks are forcing him to plan for re-election sooner than he expected.

Washington, DC — Wealthy department store heir Mark Dayton headed to Washington three years ago hoping to spend time working to increase opportunities for less fortunate Americans. But it's a remarkably different world now than it was when he was running for office.

Over lunch recently in the Senate dining room, Dayton recalled his 2000 campaign, how none of the candidates talked about how they would govern in a time of war. What would they do if the United States were attacked? It just wasn't an issue.

Three years ago, the debate revolved around how to spend trillions of dollars of tax surpluses-- not about terrorism and homeland security.

"I thought of all the things we were going to be able to do to help people in Minnesota and across this country," recalled Dayton. "It's just been three years that I couldn't have imagined, couldn't have predicted, and it's been an incredible experience but it's certainly in most respects a shift decidedly for the worse."

Dayton got elected to the Senate on his second try. He lost his first bid in the early 1980s when he took on Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. In 2000 Dayton spent $12 million of his own fortune, twice what he had spent on his first Senate race, and unseated first-term Republican Sen. Rod Grams.

Dayton arrived in Washington at the same time President Bush did. Since taking office Dayton has spent much of his time opposing Republican initiatives, most notably the tax cuts and the invasion of Iraq.

I want to raise my profile, and I certainly need to do that
- Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn.

"I, for one, recognize the inherent limitations of being in the minority and that my agenda for Minnesota and America is not going to be carried out under this administration with this Congress," said Dayton. "I need to be making my case to Minnesota why mine is a better alternative."

But making his case, political analysts and Dayton agree, has been a problem for the first-term Senator. Al Eisele is the editor of the Washington DC newspaper "The Hill." He wrote not long ago that Dayton is being overshadowed by freshman Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. Eisele says before that Sen. Wellstone, D-Minn., overshadowed Dayton.

"If you're running for re-election you have to demonstrate to the people of your constituency that you're doing a good job for them," Eisele said. "There are no shrinking violets in Washington. You have to brag on yourself a little and tell them what you've done for them and tell the voters why they should re-elect you. So I think that's probably what he'll try to do."

Dayton agrees that he needs to raise his profile. In hopes of generating more attention Dayton has hired new a public relations team. His office is now sending out more press releases, hoping reporters will take more interest in Dayton's work. The Senator has also stepped up his travel schedule around Minnesota.

"If I have to have my most critical political problem being that I'm not visible enough -- I wouldn't choose to have any problem-- but it's a good one to have," said Dayton. "And I believe if people knew more about what I was doing that would ensure to my benefit, so I'm quite delighted to be taking that on as something I'm going to try to accomplish."

But suffering from a low profile isn't Dayton's only problem as he looks toward re-election. The millionaire politician, who has thus far relied almost exclusively on his own fortune to pay for his various campaigns, says he can no longer afford to be self-financed.

Even so, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of the end of September Dayton's re-election campaign had less than $60,000. Norm Coleman, who's not up for re-election until 2008, already has nearly three times that amount.

Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said it is "odd" and it's not a good sign Dayton's campaign has so little money. Schier said he'd be surprised if Dayton doesn't start agressively fundraising.

"Mark Dayton is going to need to get very aggressive about raising money because he's certain to draw a well funded opponent," said Schier.

Dayton loosely estimates his re-election effort will cost at least $15 million. To help bring in that kind of money he's hired two of the nation's most prominent Democratic fundraisers, including former Sen. Wellstone's finance director. Dayton cringes at the topic of fundraising. He said he hates asking people for money and he said it takes time away from policy work. Still Dayton insists he'll do what it takes to ensure he has enough money going into 2006.

"I'm going to raise money, and I'll keep raising money because I'm not going to walk into this final election bare-handed and the other side ready to slit my throat," said Dayton. "I wouldn't do that to myself. I wouldn't do that to the Democrats in Minnesota, and I wouldn't do that to the causes I believe in."

Those causes are generally liberal causes. Unlike former Sen. Wellstone, Dayton often struggles to articulate his message, which is ideologically almost exactly the same as Wellstone's.

As he ran for the Senate, Dayton called for universal health care, more spending on education and using budget surpluses to shore up social security.

Although Dayton campaigned heavily on the issue of making prescription drugs more affordable for seniors, he voted against the Medicare bill which, for the first time, extends drug coverage to the elderly. Dayton lambasted the legislation, saying the lion's share of its benefits will end up going to pharmaceutical and insurance companies, not to seniors. Dayton accuses Republicans of attaching catchy titles to mask special interest-driven legislation that's not in the best interests of average Americans.

"Leaving no child behind, and we're trying to provide prescription drug coverage for the elderly and these other unmet needs extremely important and being camouflaged with the kind of rhetoric such as "No Child Left Behind," which is in Minnesota should be prosecuted for consumer fraud . It's just camouflaging the worsening conditions in which so many people are living their lives," Dayton said.

Dayton's legislative victories include winning provisions in the farm and energy bills promoting the use of ethanol and biodiesel. Dayton has also worked to improve health care benefits for veterans.

Along with Sen. Coleman, Dayton successfully sponsored legislation requiring the military to pay more travel expenses for troops on temporary leave from overseas missions. Cook Political Report Senate Editor Jennifer Duffy said Dayton rarely departs from the Democratic line in his votes and has clearly established himself as a liberal Senator. Duffy said Dayton's left-of-enter ideology coupled with his first term status make him a clear target for the GOP.

"The thing about Dayton, like Wellstone, is that being a liberal you're always going to get a challenge," said Duffy. "The mistake Republicans often make is running someone who's entirely too conservative."

Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Ron Eibensteiner said he's optimistic the GOP will be able to reclaim the seat it lost to Dayton in 2000. Many of the same criticisms Republicans leveled against Wellstone, are now being directed at Dayton.

"Sen. Dayton is very liberal," Eibensteiner said. "I don't think he really represents the Minnesota voters."

But Dayton is predicting a voter backlash against Republicans on foreign policy, tax cuts and the environment.

"I really hope that we're going to have the combination of political forces in this country that as my friend Paul Wellstone would say, we'll have leadership in the Senate, the House, and the presidency from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party. And I want to be around for that and I think that we'll have a lot that we can show for ourselves if we can have that chance."

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