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Pawlenty backs Kennedy for Senate; two DFLers decide against running
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Rep. Mark Kennedy, left, picked up the endorsement of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, right, in his bid for the U.S. Senate (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) Another Republican Party heavy hitter, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, endorsed U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy's 2006 campaign Monday as the congressman's lone GOP rival lashed out at party bosses he said were counting him out too soon.

While Republicans continued to rally around Kennedy, no DFLers have officially entered the race and two more potential candidates ruled it out.

Amid all of the activity it was easy to forget the election to replace Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton is 19 months away. Dayton announced last month he would not seek re-election.

Kennedy, a third-term congressman, earlier received the backing of U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and 26 state senators. He claims to have the support of at least 500 of the roughly 2,200 delegates who will choose a candidate next summer.

"You're seeing a groundswell of support stepping forward on behalf of my candidacy," Kennedy said. "You will find we will not be having a bitter division for the endorsement or a bitter division of significance in a primary."

However, former U.S. Senator Rod Grams, Kennedy's only announced GOP challenger, accused Republican Party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner breaking tradition by appearing to take sides in the race before the party's endorsing convention.

Eibensteiner said Friday that Kennedy appeared to have a lock on the nomination, although he didn't give the congressman an outright endorsement.

The delegates should be upset, Grams said, because "we've got a party chairman and leadership that are trying to shove down their throat a single candidate slate. This is kind of third-world politics."

He added, "When you have a former U.S. senator in this race, there is competition."

Grams, who lost to Dayton in 2000, said he wasn't upset with Coleman or Pawlenty for their endorsements, but he wondered if they had axes to grind. Grams endorsed a Coleman rival in the 1998 governor's race and a Pawlenty rival in 2002.

Pawlenty said he and Kennedy shared a lot of basic values and policy beliefs.

"We have an A-plus candidate ready to go who is a clear winner, a demonstrated winner," Pawlenty said. "It's going to be a competitive race, so we don't have a lot of time to have an internal debate about it."

The Democratic field remains murky. Children's safety advocate Patty Wetterling and Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar have taken official steps toward running, but no one has formally declared.

On Monday, Rep. Betty McCollum said she would not run for Senate next year, deciding instead to seek re-election to her St. Paul congressional district.

"After much personal reflection I have decided to continue serving my 4th District constituents and fighting for Minnesota families in Congress," McCollum, a Democrat, said in a statement.

"In the future I will likely explore other political opportunities, but for now I have a job that I love," McCollum said.

Mike Erlandson, who is stepping down as chairman of the Minnesota DFL, ended his consideration of a Senate campaign.

"It has to be in your gut, and given the commitment I have to the state party through May, and two small children, a campaign of that magnitude was not the right thing to do," Erlandson said.

Instead, he said would consider running for secretary of state in Minnesota next year.

And Ford Bell, the president of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, said he's weighing a Senate run as a Democrat.

Bell, who is also chairman of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts board of directors, said friends and DFL activists have urged him to run.

"I want to see this seat stay in the DFL Party," said Bell, who has not run for office before. He said plans to make a decision in the next two or three weeks.

Other potential candidates include Minneapolis attorney Mike Ciresi, University of Minnesota general counsel Mark Rotenberg, state Rep. Tom Rukavina and former state Sen. Jerry Janezich.