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Walz retools governor's campaign, hustles to get ahead of the game

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Tim Walz speaks at the Duluth Labor Temple on Monday.
Tim Walz speaks at the Duluth Labor Temple on Monday with his wife, Gwen, right, and running mate Peggy Flanagan, left. Alan Netland, president of the Northeast Area Labor Council, far left, joined the discussion.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Updated: 10:32 a.m. | Posted: 4 a.m.

Tim Walz the candidate for governor is drawing motivation these days from Tim Walz the high school football coach.

The Democratic congressman, for months considered the favorite for the party nomination for governor, saw his campaign stumble some in recent weeks.

He was beaten for the DFL Party's convention endorsement by state Rep. Erin Murphy and then learned a new powerhouse candidate, three-term Attorney General Lori Swanson, would jump into the August primary race, too.

Tim Walz and Rebecca Otto speak together at the DFL convention.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and Minnesota auditor Rebecca Otto speak together before both dropped out of contention for the DFL governor endorsement on June 2, 2018, in Rochester, Minn.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

"I had a team back in '99 that started out 2-and-4 and won a state championship," Walz told MPR News in an interview Monday, using it as a metaphor for a campaign he expects will eventually triumph. "It's what you learn along the way."

In the days since the convention loss, Walz has replaced his campaign manager and retooled other parts of his operation. He's made calls to reassure allies that the campaign is on track.

"We're right where we thought we would be," he said. "There was a chance and we made a good effort at the endorsement but we always knew the primary was where it would be won."

Now he's off on a two-day tour of northern Minnesota and is expected to be on the road often over the nine weeks remaining before the Aug. 14 vote.

He kicked it off with a roundtable at the Duluth Labor Temple, where a couple dozen representatives of unions already supporting him were on hand. Walz began with some introductory remarks, telling the group he was proud to stand with them.

He reminded them of the high stakes this fall as DFLers settle on an opponent to former Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the two Republicans chasing that party's nomination.

"We believe this is the ticket and I think with the support from you is the ticket that can reflect all of Minnesota," Walz said.

Given contested party races for Congress and attorney general, turnout could be higher than usual for the traditionally sleepy August vote. So Murphy, Swanson and Walz are all feeling around some for the right formula.

Murphy has worked to solidify the party's liberal base and use the party endorsement as a springboard while Swanson is positioning herself as a center-left candidate with a proven vote-getting track record.

Where does that leave Walz?

"I've never saw this as cobbling together factions or political factions," he said. "Our niche has always been with a ticket that reflects Minnesota, a leadership style that is inclusive, a leadership style that is focused on effective results. None of those things have changed."

At the labor roundtable, Walz said he's someone who can break through legislative gridlock — as someone who isn't in the Capitol fray now. In the MPR News interview, he brought up Murphy's role in the Legislature directly.

Walz said in this new phase he'll do a better job of "setting the record straight" on guns, where he has backed new restrictions after previously touting his gun-rights record as a congressman. He said Murphy, as House majority leader in 2013-14, didn't get anything significant passed on guns after prior school shootings.

"There were bills proposed that were never brought up. That was a decision that was made," Walz said. "I think trying to make the case that all of these things are on me or Lori Swanson or anyone else — there was an awful lot of ownership why this didn't get done."

So far, Walz's network of labor union supporters is holding up. He is backed by several trades unions and Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union.

Education Minnesota president Denise Specht said Walz's experience as a high school geography teacher before going to Congress made him an attractive pick.

"He knows who we are. Because he's lived it. He's walked it. He still has children in the public schools," Specht said. "And that's really what I think resonated with most people. He's one of us."

Specht said the union hasn't received any pressure to fall in line behind Murphy or flip to Swanson. Nor does the union plan to pull its support for Walz.

"Our endorsement wasn't conditional," Specht said.

Going forward, she said Walz can expect on-the-ground help from many of the union's 90,000 current and retired members who have a presence in virtually every community in the state.

A week after getting into the governor's race, Swanson set off Monday on her first campaign trek to Duluth, Moorhead and Brainerd. Some of those places were on Murphy's itinerary last week.

At a cafe in Moorhead, Murphy urged fellow DFLers not to buy into the notion that where a candidate is from — in her case St. Paul — matters more than where they stand.

"There are all sorts of efforts to try and divide us. And divide us in all sorts of ways. Those fault lines are evident all over this state; they are evident all across our politics," Murphy said. "We are hearing people delivering messages intended to make us look at and blame each other for what's wrong whether it is by our regions or by our gender or by our ethnicity."

Walz has cast himself as the Democratic candidate most in tune with greater Minnesota. The numbers from the 2016 election, though, offer a nuanced picture.

Republican Donald Trump narrowly lost Minnesota in the presidential race and Walz narrowly won re-election to his 1st Congressional District seat. Of the 21 counties in the 1st District, Trump won 20 and Walz won eight, including the most populous of Olmsted, Winona and Blue Earth.

However, Walz outpaced Trump in the overall vote in only five counties in the 1st District, even accounting for the fact that Trump faced a range of third-party candidates in addition to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Statewide, 78 of 87 counties wound up in Trump's column but Clinton built her winning margin by doing best in the most populated ones.

Democrats are hoping to avoid such a nail-biting scenario this time around with the governor's office, their last foothold in the Capitol lawmaking dynamic.

"People look at our ticket and say, 'Well, this is a ticket that can perform in greater Minnesota.' It is also one that has performed and will perform in the Twin Cities," Walz said. "That's where our strength lies. It's uniting around one Minnesota with shared values."

Walz had the most money of any Democratic candidate at the last fundraising checkpoint. He said voters can expect to see TV ads from him in the near future, declining to say precisely when.

Of the publicly reported campaign fundraising so far, Walz raised $1.65 million but spent about a million of that. Murphy raised about $620,000 between the time she got into the race and the end of March, but didn't have a whole lot left coming into April.

Walz and Murphy must report their pre-June fundraising and spending activity by Thursday. Swanson's first report, due to the timing of her entry, is due on July 30.

MPR News reporters Dan Gunderson in Moorhead, Minn., and Dan Kraker in Duluth contributed to this report.