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Johnson comes out swinging at Pawlenty after GOP convention

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GOP gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson
GOP gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson speaks at a press conference following the state convention where he secured the party's endorsement.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 7:15 p.m. | Posted: 11:01 a.m.

Minnesota's Republican party launched its summer campaign Monday, promising to take back the state's constitutional offices and challenge popular DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner who won the party endorsement in Duluth over the weekend, focused his fire on his most immediate challenger: former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who'll face off against Johnson in an Aug. 14 primary. Pawlenty launched his own fly-around campaign Monday.

Johnson lost the governor's race four years ago in a challenge to incumbent DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. 

Despite campaigning for Pawlenty in 2002, Johnson said Monday he thinks he's a better bet for Republicans despite Pawlenty's success and his prior experience as governor. 

"Tim (Pawlenty) has run for governor three times," Johnson said. "He ran in '98 and dropped out. He ran in 2002 for an open seat and got 44 percent and won, and then he ran as an incumbent and got under 47 percent and won."

Johnson noted that he got 45 percent of the vote in his losing effort against Dayton, a popular incumbent. 

"So, the argument that he is somehow far superior, has a much greater experience as a candidate, or much greater success with the people, that's not really true," Johnson said. "Yes, he won twice, and part of that is about timing. But we essentially got the same percentage of the vote and I ran in a much tougher race."

Johnson said he believes he'll also be in a better position to win new President Trump voters, after Trump came close to winning Minnesota in the 2016 election.

Johnson said he'll call attention to Pawlenty's past as a Washington lobbyist for banks and financial companies, and that will hurt him among new voters. "We're gonna punch hard," Johnson said of his upcoming campaign.

Pawlenty said he thinks he has a better feel for the party's grassroots and primary voters. In Rochester, Pawlenty talked about his vote for President Trump in 2016.

"I did early vote for him," Pawlenty said. "But since then, as I watched him as president of the United States, I agree with many, most of his policy priorities. I just don't like some of his behaviors and language. And I think that's where most Republicans and most kind of center-right voters are."