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Field grows for '06 governor's race

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) The lineup card for Minnesota's 2006 governor's race is starting to fill up.

Two more potential challengers to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty took steps this week toward running; the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson filed papers Monday forming a campaign committee and DFL state Sen. Steve Kelley scheduled a kickoff event for next week after filing his papers Wednesday. While the general election is 18 months off, this summer will be decision time for candidates giving the race some thought. They need to leave themselves enough time to woo the party faithful ahead of the March precinct caucuses, which will set the stage for next summer's party endorsing conventions.

Pawlenty hasn't officially said he will run for a second, four-year term. If he does, he has a virtual lock on the Republican nomination.

The fight for the DFL nomination is where the action will be.

When he holds his Capitol steps rally, Kelley will join ex-state legislator and nonprofit founder Bud Philbrook in the DFL field.

Two other big name Democrats - Attorney General Mike Hatch and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson - have put out feelers but are uncommitted to campaigns. State Sen. Becky Lourey of Kerrick has also been mentioned.

Kelley, a third-term senator from Hopkins, is one of the Pawlenty administration's leading critics, especially when it comes to education matters. As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, he led the hearings that resulted in the ouster of Education Commissioner Cheri Yecke and he helped draft the state's new academic standards after disagreeing with ones put out by Yecke.

Kelley has sought statewide office before. He tried but failed to get the DFL's U.S. Senate nod in 2000.

"It will be an energetic campaign from the very beginning," Kelley said. He plans to abide by the party endorsement and not advance to the primary without it.

There's a benefit to being an early entrant, he said. "Every subsequent story includes your name."

Pawlenty has a healthy head start over potential rivals when it comes to raising money. He ended 2004 with nearly $500,000 in the bank and he has been collecting more checks since.

Hatch, who has sent out at least three fundraising letters, said he won't decide whether to run until later this summer. "The purpose is to get a gauge of support," he said Thursday.

Hutchinson could be a wild card in the race.

The Independence Party - formerly the Reform Party in Minnesota - has factored greatly into the outcome of the last two gubernatorial campaigns, winning in 1998 with Jesse Ventura on the ticket and polling in double digits in 2002 with ex-Democratic congressman Tim Penny.

Pawlenty won his office with 44 percent of the vote to DFLer Roger Moe's 36 percent.

Hutchinson, who was on vacation and unavailable for a phone interview, said by e-mail that forming a campaign committee was the first small step in a long process. He said is "planning to run for governor in 2006."

Hutchinson is currently a public-policy consultant. He served as finance commissioner under Gov. Rudy Perpich, the last Democrat to win that office in 1986. He has also served as deputy mayor of Minneapolis.