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Poll suggests close race for governor

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The Mason-Dixon poll conducted for Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press surveyed 625 registered voters from last Thursday through Monday. The results show 44 percent favor Democrat Mike Hatch, while 42 percent support Republican incumbent Tim Pawlenty. Peter Hutchinson, of the Independence Party, had 4 percent. Seven percent were undecided. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

"We knew all along that this was going to be a very competitive race," said Hatch campaign manager Jon Youngdahl. "But it looks like from your poll and other polls recently that the momentum is in our direction and we're really pleased with that."

Support for Hatch is up five points from the last MPR/Pioneer Press poll in mid-September, while Pawlenty remained at 42 percent. Support for Hutchinson also stayed about the same.

Hatch and Pawlenty have been beating up on each other for months in TV ads and a series of debates. But poll numbers show neither candidate has been able to break away from his opponent in a statistically significant way. 

Pawlenty campaign spokesman Brian McClung expects a tight race right to the end. He says Pawlenty won by a narrow margin in 2002 and can do it again. 

"We know that the Republican get-out-the-vote effort is the most sophisticated, the most targeted, the best organized. And so we feel that heading into an election day with a close race that the governor is going to be in a real good position," he said.

The Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson says he's pleased to see his name recognition has increased, but the challenge of building support remains the same. He's been under 10 percent in every poll. But Hutchinson says neither Hatch nor Pawlenty should be pleased with the poll.

"I look at this poll and the one before that and and the one before that and the one before that and the one before that and the one before that, and all you can conclude is nothing has changed, for anybody," Hutchinson said. "And frankly, if I were either Mike Hatch or Tim Pawlenty, I'd start to wonder after spending $4.5 million  on advertising why it's not working? Because it's clearly not working."

Hutchinson says most of the interviews for this poll were done before last Sunday's televised debate. He says he thinks he did well in the broadcast and his support should be higher in the next poll.

Some poll respondents, like Carol Wiessner of Afton, say they find Hutchinson's independent message appealing. But that isn't enough to get their support in the voting booth. Wiessner says she doesn't think Hutchinson can win, so she's moving toward Gov. Pawlenty. 

"I have more of a conservative perspective," she said. "And taxes are a big issue for us. My husband is a small business owner and those are big issues for us, and we are leaning that way."

Poll respondents who call themselves independents were evenly divided between the frontrunners. Thirty-six percent support Hatch and 37 percent support Pawlenty. Party loyalty is also similar, with 86 percent of Republicans behind Pawlenty and 83 percent of DFLers backing Hatch. 

"I think that Mike (Hatch) is a true Democrat at heart in being a progressive and a populist and listening to the people and willing to fight for the middle class and the lower class," said respondent Laurie Gauer of Chanhassen. "I think that's what he's always done and will continue to do so."

Nearly a third of respondents ranked taxes and the budget as the most important issue in the governor's race. Education ranked second, followed by the economy, health care and moral issues.