E-80-what? Campaign flubs have long tradition in Minnesota

The Wellstone service
In 2002, a memorial service for Sen. Paul Wellstone turned into a call for Democratic votes. Some analysts say the backlash against the service-turned-rally led to Republican gains in the election.
File photo

(AP) Judi Dutcher has plenty of company.

The DFL lieutenant governor candidate was caught on camera in farm country on Wednesday apparently without an inkling of what E-85 was. For the record, it's a fuel blend made largely from corn and sold at gas stations scattered throughout the state.

Dutcher's flub was just the latest in a long line of campaign blunders that range from turning the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's memorial service into a plea for Democratic votes in 2002 to DFL gubernatorial candidate Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III's insistence in 1998 that third-party candidate Jesse Ventura be included in debates.

But it's not just Democrats who have choked at crucial moments. Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz helped sink his 1990 re-election bid with a late-breaking letter to Jewish voters that criticized Wellstone's commitment to Judaism. It helped tip a tight election for Wellstone.

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That's the thing about gaffes - they're self-inflicted.

"Gaffes are created by the person who does them," said Wy Spano, a Democratic analyst who has been observing Minnesota politics for 40 years. "They're much better than a negative ad. It's like you do it to yourself."

There's a difference between all-out blunders and strategic mistakes.

Spano counted Republican Mark Kennedy's attempts to portray himself as politically independent in this year's Senate race as a gaffe "just because it was so patently untrue." Kennedy is a three-term congressman who has been loyal to President Bush. But GOP analyst Tom Horner said it was one of those tough calls that open candidates to second-guessing.

In 1984, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale shot himself in the foot by declaring that he would raise taxes, and President Ronald Reagan crushed him.

"I put Mondale's into the blunder category because he didn't need to do it," Horner said.

Perhaps the classic Minnesota mistake was made by Wendell Anderson, a popular Democratic governor who turned the public against him by engineering his appointment to the U.S. Senate in 1976. Payback came in 1978, when Boschwitz creamed Anderson and Republicans spanked Democrats across the state. The DFL lost 32 state House seats and ended up in a tie with Republicans.

"In Minnesota's political culture, the worst thing you can commit is to appear to be using politics for your own gain," said Spano, who heads the Center for Advocacy and Political Leadership at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "Missing that point was Wendell Anderson's most astounding mistake."

So how much will Dutcher's E-85 blunder hurt her and running mate Mike Hatch?

"It's always hard to tell, especially with lieutenant governor candidates," said Horner. "Anything in the last couple of days makes a difference in this close of a race."