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Candidates adjust to earlier political calendar

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If you have been thinking the campaign for governor started earlier than usual, you're right.

     Sure, it feels like we just got through with an election, especially with Minnesota's drawn out 2008 U.S. Senate race, but the rules are actually different this year, and many dates on the campaign calendar have been moved up. That's left the candidates scrambling to gain ground 10 months before Election Day. 

     Minnesota's precinct caucuses begin the formal process of selecting candidates for the November election. Those neighborhood meetings have traditionally been held in March. But this year, the caucus date is February 2.

"We're working very, very aggressively to organize around the state to get people ready and get them out to caucuses," said state Sen. John Marty of Roseville.

Marty is one of a dozen DFL candidates running for governor in a wide open race. Most of the candidates have been traveling the state for several months trying to build support in advance the party endorsing process. Marty has experience with a statewide campaign, running for governor in 1994, and he feels a faster pace this time. 

"We're working very aggressively to organize around the state to get people ready and get them out to caucuses."

Caucus turnout was heavy in 2008, in part because of the presidential election. But Marty said he's still not sure what difference the earlier caucus date might make this year.

"I don't know what the turnout will be. Partly that may even depend on the weather, but partly it depends on how much attention is paid to it right before," Marty said. "Because we can't personally talk to everybody who we hope shows up at the caucuses, so it's going to be what they're hearing from the media and what they're hearing from friends and neighbors."

    This year's political calendar also calls for earlier state party conventions, which Democrats and Republicans have pushed up from June to April. State GOP Chairman Tony Sutton said he decided last summer that an earlier convention was the way to go.

"I wanted to move it forward because I thought it was important to give our endorsed candidate the maximum amount of time to benefit from having the support of the party," Sutton said. "Especially with the political environment that we're in, I thought we could use any advantage that we can get."

     The biggest change in Minnesota's political calendar is still pending. Lawmakers are expected to take action early in the 2010 session to move the primary election from September to August. The move is needed to comply with a federal requirement to assist overseas military personnel cast absentee ballots.

     Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer who's also running for re-election this year, said an August 10 primary will also bring new dates for candidate filing and election canvassing. Ritchie said his office will have to update computer programs and Web pages, and local election officials will have to adjust rental contracts for polling locations.

"We're saying to everybody, here's the calendar we believe will be the case," Ritchie said.  "We need you to be letting your legislators and the governor know that the sooner they get this taken care of in the  session, the sooner all the triggers can be pulled to make this a smooth transition."

     This year's primary will likely be needed to decide the major party nominees for the gubernatorial race. Party officials would rather avoid primaries and the potential political damage they can inflict on their candidates. Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College, said an August primary gives more time for any political wounds to heal.

"Those September primaries, when you had candidates criticizing each other well into the fall, I think were difficult for political parties," Hofrenning said. "I think this will help a little bit."

     An August primary will also mean a summer full of political activity. Candidates will have to reach voters during a time when they've traditionally been thinking more about vacations than elections. GOP candidate gubernatorial Marty Seifert said it could be a challenge. 

"We usually are used to the primary being after Labor Day, and having [it] be the kickoff for commercials and for campaign activities," Seifert said. "Maybe the State Fair is seen as kind of the kickoff even. If this is front loaded, then the State Fair would kind of be the afterthought, and obviously people are going to have to think about this process earlier."

     The fast-pace political calendar applies to every race on the November ballot. In addition to governor, Minnesota voters will elect three other constitutional officers, eight members of congress and 201 state legislators.