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Tax, immigration issues erupt in governor's race

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Pawlenty ad
A screenshot from a TV ad for Gov. Tim Pawlenty which criticizes his opponents' positions on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
Pawlenty campaign

 (AP)  Two hot-button issues - immigration and taxes - flared up Wednesday in Minnesota's race for governor.      

 Like he did in the stretch run four years ago, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty began airing an immigration-themed ad. Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Mike Hatch expressed a willingness to approve a gas tax increase despite his personal opposition to it.

      Polls show that with less than two weeks to go, it's a tight race between Pawlenty and Hatch, with the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson a distant third. And while the front-running candidates are spending more time talking to voters in person, it remains a campaign fought largely over the airwaves.

      Pawlenty's latest ad mirrors a strategy from his 2002 campaign. Set to a dark background and ominous music, the ad casts Pawlenty as the only candidate vowing to block a proposal that would let illegal immigrants access in-state college tuition.

      "We don't even give that to people from Iowa," a narrator says.

      Hutchinson favors the so-called Dream Act the Legislature considered last year. Under it, illegal immigrants who are Minnesota high school graduates could gain tuition at resident rates provided they have lived in the state least three years.

      The ad accuses Hatch of failing to take a stand. On Wednesday, he said he would oppose the tuition proposal as governor.

      Hatch prepared his own counterpunching ad that accusing Pawlenty's administration of looking the other way on employers who hire illegal immigrants.

      "The problem here is we've got poultry plants, meatpacking plants, nurseries, roofers and construction operations now that operate with immunity because Pawlenty's department of labor refuses to enforce the law," Hatch said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

      Four years ago, and also 13 days from Election Day, Pawlenty aired an ad calling for tougher state policies toward immigrants. It proclaimed "terrorists are here" and opened with a reminder that Zacarias Moussaoui, who is now serving a life sentence connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, was arrested in Minnesota.

      Pawlenty's two leading rivals at the time condemned that ad as inflammatory, but he stood by it.

      Separately, Republicans on Wednesday went after Hatch for appearing to change his stance on the gas tax, which goes for road construction. In a Star Tribune article, Hatch said he would sign off on an increase in the state's 20-cent-per-gallon tax "if the Legislature in its wisdom passes it."

      In radio and TV debates in March and May, Hatch came out against a gas-tax hike. "One thing people are not going to tolerate is a higher cost of their gasoline," he said on Twin Cities Public Television's "Almanac" program.

      In a Sept. 15 debate, Hatch said he wasn't "willing to commit to a tax on the most volatile product in our economy today, namely gasoline."

      On Wednesday, Hatch told the AP he remains opposed to bumping up the gas tax and wouldn't promote it. But he wouldn't veto a gas-tax bill, as Pawlenty did in 2005.

      "I would not stand in the way of an increase in the gas tax as long as it was reasonable," Hatch said. "The veto should be ultilized when the governor believes the Legislature is not representing the will of the people."

      Pawlenty campaign spokesman Brian McClung said only the governor is unequivocal about holding the line on taxes.

      "If you are going to sign a gas tax increase that means you support a gas tax increase," McClung said. "Mike Hatch is trying to play both sides of every issue and Minnesotans are going to see through it."