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Governor's race: Hatch in, Philbrook out

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Mike Hatch used a nurses convention in St. Paul as the backdrop for his kickoff, telling the group he would make access to health care his top priority if he wins. He took several swipes at Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's stewardship of the state. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch officially entered the race for governor on Monday, kicking off his third run for the state's highest office. Hatch made his announcement at the annual convention of the Minnesota Nurses Association, which has endorsed him. Republicans are already attacking Hatch, calling him the "fatal attraction candidate".

St. Paul, Minn. — The state's top lawyer has a lengthy career of battling insurance companies and HMOs who have denied coverage to Minnesotans. For his gubernatorial announcement, Mike Hatch was joined by two women who praised him for going to bat for them. One of them, Gail Nelson of Iron, says after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, her medical bills far surpassed the $10,000 coverage limit from her insurance with MinnesotaCare, the state's subsidized health plan.

Nelson says her hospital expected her to pay more than $75,000 out of her own pocket, a rate double what HMOs would have to pay. She says Hatch negotiated with the state's hospitals so that people like her aren't charged more than insurance companies for the same service.

"Mike Hatch's kindness meant the world to me at one of the most difficult times in my life," she said. "Mike Hatch has the strength and resolve to tackle tough problems like health care for all the people of Minnesota, and that's why I join the nurses in Minnesota in proudly supporting him for governor."

Hatch told the Nurses Association that he believes health care is a right, not a privilege. He says ensuring access to health care would be his top priority as governor. He says his agenda would be different from that of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and he accused Pawlenty of putting his no-new-taxes pledge ahead of the interests of Minnesotans.

"We now have a government that masquerades as 'Minnesota Nice,' but whose policies are particularly cruel to the sick, the vulnerable and the impoverished," he said.

Hatch says he would focus on access to health care and quality education -- both K-12 and higher education -- for middle-class Minnesotans. He wouldn't say whether he'd need to raise taxes to fund his priorities.

Republicans didn't even wait until Hatch's announcement to begin attacking his record. A week and a half ago, they launched a Web site devoted to criticizing Hatch. State Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey says Hatch's announcement speech was full of tired old liberal themes. He says Hatch has a "bizarre fatal attraction with the governor's office."

"He is so obsessed with that, he has decided to run for a third time, despite promising not to do so. Unfortunately for Hatch, when people get to know him, they don't like him," Carey said.

Hatch ran for governor twice in the 1990s. This time, he enters the race as the only DFL state constitutional officer, with two statewide wins under his belt. He received more votes than Gov. Pawlenty in 2002.

Charlie Weaver, who lost the attorney general's race to Hatch in 1998, says Hatch is a formidable opponent, and shouldn't be underestimated. Weaver, who now heads the Minnesota Business Partnership, says Hatch is a shrewd campaigner who has embraced the role of a tough consumer watchdog.

"He's always been someone who takes on business, and he's talked about it, and he's done it. He's been relentless in that regard ... He's the kind of guy who... he won't stab you in the back; he'll stab you right in the front, but at least you know what you're getting."

Hatch has taken on companies ranging from pharmaceutical giant Glaxo-Smith-Kline to Centerpoint Energy. He acknowledges he's incurred the wrath of lobbyists and special interests in the process.

University of Minnesota Duluth political scientist Craig Grau says Hatch has a solid mailing list of supporters who applaud his populist views.

"I think he's perceived as an attorney general who has taken on the big corporation kind of idea. That he's backed the little guy against the big guy," according to Grau.

Grau says he's not sure if Hatch will get the DFL endorsement. Hatch says he'll abide by the endorsement if turnout is high at precinct caucuses. But that condition could leave him some latitude to run in the primary if he's not endorsed. Hatch will vie for the endorsement against state Sen. Steve Kelley and real estate developer Kelly Doran, who just spent $500,000 on his first television ad.

State Sen. Becky Lourey is also likely to jump in the race in November.

Bud Philbrook, a former legislator, dropped out on the race on Monday. Philbrook said he was having trouble raising enough money to be competitive.

"I'm a business guy. You set goals and objectives," he said. "You either meet them or you don't meet them. If you don't meet a lot of them over a period of time you've just got to figure you're not going to make it."