The poll of 625 registered voters conducted earlier this week found 42 percent support Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, while 39 percent back DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch. The poll's margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points, so the race is essentially a tie.
Five percent say they'd vote for the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson. Eleven percent were undecided.
Poll respondent Dan Pate of Dennison says he voted for Pawlenty four years ago, and he'll vote for him again this year. Pate is a small-business owner who likes Pawlenty for eliminating a massive deficit without raising state taxes.
"He's kind of tough-nosed, which I like," said Pate. "I think when he says he's going to do something, granted, he is concerned about his wherewithal with his voters and everything, but not so much that he doesn't stick up for what he's actually believing in."
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Pate is among the 46 percent of poll respondents who think Pawlenty is doing a "good" or "excellent" job as governor.
Others, like Patrick Ryan of Minneapolis, disagree. Ryan is retired from the St. Paul Water Department, and doesn't like the way Pawlenty balanced the budget. Ryan doesn't support the governor's cuts to health care and early childhood programs, and says Pawlenty isn't spending enough on the state's highways.
"The infrastructure's not getting taken care of, and it's like changing the oil in your car: if you pay a couple bucks to get the thing fixed in the beginning -- a little bit extra -- you don't have to repair, replace the motor later on down the road, and I got a feeling that Pawlenty's going to blow up the whole motor for the state of Minnesota and we're going to be paying big time afterwards," he said.
Ryan says he'll vote for Hatch, and thinks Hatch would lower property taxes.
Political analysts say voters like Ryan and Pate probably won't change their minds, so the candidates for governor should focus on the undecided voters. To do so, Republican strategist Annette Meeks says Pawlenty should continue to talk about his record on the issues poll respondents care about.
"Two-thirds of the Minnesotans agree that taxes, budget and education are number one, or number two on their list of things that they worry about, and that's really been the governor's agenda for his first four years ... and so I think he's on the right track, he just needs to stay the course," according to Meeks.
Meeks says one favorable indicator for Pawlenty is the poll's finding that more than half of respondents think Minnesota is on the right track. But Pawlenty's negative ratings are higher than Hatch's. More than a third of poll respondents had an unfavorable view of the governor, compared to about a fifth for Hatch.
DFLer Blois Olson, co-publisher of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota, says the election is largely a referendum on Pawlenty's performance. He says the best opportunity for Hatch to pick up votes is among the 19 percent of independents who are undecided.
"The good news for Hatch is that that block of independent voters knows Tim Pawlenty, and they know Tim Pawlenty as governor, and their mind is not made up. So they're unsure if Tim Pawlenty should be governor again, and so that means Hatch has an opportunity to convince them that he deserves the job," Olson said.
Most voters know who Pawlenty and Hatch are, but half of poll respondents didn't recognize Peter Hutchinson's name. The Independence Party candidate says Pawlenty and Hatch have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising, yet their poll numbers haven't budged.
"They're probably at their peak. And that's not good news for them. And I'm probably at the low point I'm going to be, and while I'd rather not be there, I'd rather be there than at my peak at this point. I actually come away from this optimistic but challenged," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson says he has to increase his name recognition, and will start running television ads in a couple of weeks. He's also criticized Pawlenty and Hatch for not agreeing to more debates, appearances which help his own visibility.
Poll respondent Karen Hills of Golden Valley says she thought Hutchinson put Pawlenty and Hatch in their place during their last debate.
"I like a lot of the things that Peter Hutchinson has said. Actually, he's more about issues ... I kind of go back and forth, actually, I would be back and forth between Hutchinson and Pawlenty," Hills said.
The candidates have fewer than seven weeks to persuade Hills and other undecided voters. Their next debate is Wednesday at the University of Minnesota.