As primary looms, a GOP frontrunner emerges

For weeks, the Republican candidates for governor and their surrogates have said that the race for the GOP nomination is wide open and have been reluctant to criticize each other.  Now less than two weeks out from the Aug. 12 primary the tactics appear to be shifting.

It’s becoming more clear who the Republican candidates view as the frontrunner to win the nomination for governor.

Jeff Johnson, the Republican-endorsed candidate, has become the target of his rivals Scott Honour,  Marty Seifert and Kurt Zellers over the past two days.

The barbs first started flying yesterday during the MPR News gubernatorial forum. Honour and Seifert criticized Johnson for suggesting that he wouldn’t be able to make real budget cuts until the second half of his term.

“Jeff, you came out and said you didn’t think that you could get after this budget in the first two years," Honour said, “that you’d have to get after it in the second two years. We don’t have that time. One thing I learned in business is that when you see something going the wrong way, change it quickly.”

Seifert quickly followed suit, suggesting Johnson isn’t being ambitious enough.

“I’m ready to be governor on day one,” Seifert said. “We’re not going to wait two years to figure it out because your administration is half over and half squandered.”

For his part, Johnson said he’ll propose budget cuts right away but said no meaningful change will occur until the second half of his term.

“Every budget that I propose and pass will be smaller than the last,” Johnson said.  “But you’re going to see the real change in the second biennium.”

Meanwhile, Zellers is criticizing Johnson for being open to expanding the sales tax to consumer services. Johnson has said he’s open to the idea as long as other taxes are cut to make it revenue neutral.

“Low, broad and simple is what I’ve been saying for 15 months,” Johnson said during MPR’s debate and during a debate on Twin Cities News Talk.

But Zellers used Johnson’s talking point against him.

“Low, broad and simple is hard, mean and regressive,” Zellers said. “It hits those people who can least afford it the hardest.”

Zellers also criticized Johnson over expanding the sales tax to clothing and food during a debate this morning on WDSM-AM in Duluth.

“Why add the sales tax to middle class families like us?” Zellers asked Johnson. Zellers later sent out a fundraising e-mail to supporters criticizing Johnson’s stance on the sales tax.

Meanwhile, Seifert brought up Johnson’s political past during the debate on WDSM. One of Johnson's main selling points to Republicans is that he's the best candidate to attract Democratic and Independent voters. But Seifert said Johnson didn't attract many votes in 2006 when Democrat Lori Swanson drubbed him in the race for Minnesota Attorney General.

“We did a little research going back 20 years, Seifert said. “It was the second worst performance of any constitutional office candidate even though it was an open seat and Pawlenty got re-elected. Some of us are kind of wondering how can you make the claim when the results weren’t there.”

Johnson said his failed statewide run makes him a better candidate this year. He also joked he wouldn’t run for a seat (attorney general) that Republicans haven't captured in 50 years.

There hasn’t been any public polling on the primary race, so it’s hard to gauge where the candidates stand heading into the primary.

But judging by recent actions, Johnson is the candidate the others are watching the closest.

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