Politicking is as much a Minnesota State Fair tradition as pronto pups and butter sculptures.
The three major party candidates for governor plan to spend a lot of time at the Minnesota State Fair over the next 10 days, even though they agree there will be less political intensity than in previous years.
Minnesota's first-ever Aug. 10 primary means party nominations aren't up for grabs at fair time. As a result, the surviving candidates are now focused on the November general election, as are some fairgoers.
On Thursday, admirers lined up at the DFL Party's State Fair booth waiting shake hands with gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton. Most offered words of encouragement. But Dayton soon found that some of his critics also like to go to the fair.
"You've got a record of being one of the worst senators we ever had," one man said. "Why do you think you'd be a good governor?"
"Well, I think I'm better suited for the governor's office," Dayton replied.
But the critical fairgoer was ready with a quick response: "Tax 'em to death, yeah, that's a good job."
Dayton said he appreciates the feedback from voters, even when it's negative. Within minutes, he engaged fairgoers in conversations about taxes, health care and education.
"There are a lot of people out here enjoying the fair who either aren't aware that we're here, or may not want to spend time with politicians when there's all this good food to eat," Dayton said. "But people who stop by the DFL booth obviously are here for a reason. It's always a good chance to talk politics, and usually with people who want to do that."
Dayton said this year's narrowed, post-primary field of candidates gives this fair a different feel.
Republican candidate Tom Emmer agreed. Emmer attracted plenty of fans. Many of them snapped pictures. There were a few critics seeking further explanation from the GOP candidate on his minimum wage position and his plan to cut government spending.
Emmer said he thinks voters are generally starting to ask different kinds of questions.
"It's really nice to see people are starting to get tuned in to what's coming in the next 68 days," he said. "They're starting to ask questions, starting to delve further. But instead of just pictures that appear for 30 seconds on a TV, they're staring to come and say, 'Who are you? What are you about? What are you really saying?' and starting to think about what we need to do when Nov. 2 comes around. That's what I'm getting so far."
About a block away, Independence Party candidate Tom Horner was also busy talking to fairgoers. When it comes to name recognition among voters, Horner still has the big hill to climb. That's why the third-party hopeful said he plans to spend several hours each day at the fair.
"With the early primary, Minnesotans are out here knowing who their candidates for governor are. There are only three of us instead of a cast of thousands, as in some years," Horner said. "So, I think this is going to be a great opportunity to put a face with a name that a lot of people have heard, talk to some folks and keep that momentum going."
Horner said a big share of Minnesota voters are still thinking more about the end of summer than politics. But he said the higher than expected voter turnout for the Aug. 10 primary is a sign of early interest.
John Ruhland of Eagan, who was hanging out near the DFL fair booth, said it would be hard not to know about the governor's race.
"I can't avoid it on TV right now," Ruhland said. "It's on radio, too, for that matter. There's plenty of it to remind you that it's coming soon."
State Fair crowds are big, but they represent a tiny segment of Minnesota voters. Still, campaigning there is a unique opportunity for candidates who have been gearing their messages for a broader audience since the primary, said Kathryn Pearson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.
"I don't think that the candidate appearances at the fair are likely to make or break the election," she said. "But definitely getting out and talking to voters from all over the state who come to the fair is important for all of the candidates."
The three candidates for governor are scheduled to cross paths at the State Fair next Friday, when they participate in a debate sponsored by MPR News.