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Published November 02, 2010, 09:27 PM

Dayton Stakes Out Lead as MN Gov Votes Counted

Democrat Mark Dayton led Tuesday in a bid to retake the Minnesota governor's office for his party for the first time in two decades.

By: Associated Press,

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Democrat Mark Dayton led Tuesday in a bid to retake the Minnesota governor's office for his party for the first time in two decades.

Dayton piled up a large margin in a key county and had roughly 90,000 more votes than Republican Tom Emmer with 15 percent of precincts reporting, though most were in Democratic-friendly areas.

In Hennepin County, the gap between Dayton and Emmer was much larger than one between the Democratic nominee and eventual GOP winner Tim Pawlenty four years ago.

Both campaigns expected a tight outcome. Tom Horner of the Independence Party was doing better in Hennepin County than a third-party candidate in 2006, mostly at Emmer's expense.

Dayton, a former U.S. senator, ran on a platform of fixing a $6 billion budget problem by making people with the highest incomes pay more in taxes. Emmer, a state legislator, promised to stay the no-new-taxes course Minnesota has held for eight years under Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Cafeteria cashier Iona Bartelt of Afton said Dayton's appeal for higher taxes on the rich resonated with her because "they're not paying their fair tax."

"Mark Dayton has always tried to help the middle class," she said. "Even though he's wealthy himself, he cares about the average person."

The Dayton tax plan also influenced the vote of Corcoran's Chris Aase — for Emmer.

Aase said he went with Emmer because he saw him as more sympathetic to the concerns of small businesses, including the eight-employee telephone company he owns.

"Everything depends on this election and how they do things," Aase said, adding, "We're not spending money on upgrades and things like that we should too, because we're waiting to see how our taxes are going to be spent."

Dayton, 63, outlasted a crowded Democratic field to make Tuesday's ballot. It was a remarkable turnaround for a man who limped from the Senate a few years earlier after one term even he said was futile. Dayton asked voters to trust that he had better instincts for an executive role.

Emmer, 49, was the legislative bench player who used grit and heart-pumping speeches to win the Republican nomination. Emmer was raw early in his first statewide campaign, most notably when he provoked restaurant workers with comments they took as a threat to their wages. But he steadied in the final months and stuck to a message that government needed to "live within its means."

Horner, 60, hoped his public relations expertise and his message of moderation would connect with voters turned off by the other two. He promoted an expanded sales tax as a partial fix to the deficit. Despite impressive fundraising for a third-party candidate, Horner found himself stuck in the teens in public polls.

Edina accountant Chris Wittich, a self-described Republican, went with Horner because he had too many concerns about his party's nominee.

"Tom Horner's ideas were generally more rational and realistic — somewhere in between all tax increases and spending cuts would be good," Wittich said.

The three candidates had plenty of chances to get their messages out. They met in more than two dozen debates, an average of two per week.

Outside groups asserted themselves more than ever. Labor unions and liberal organizations combined to spend at least $5 million to rough up Emmer, including ads highlighting decades-old drunken-driving arrests. Groups on the right, including those financed mostly by corporate donations, aimed at Dayton's decision to close his Senate office amid terrorism concerns and his dour self-appraisal of his single Washington term.