ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Their race drawing to a close, Minnesota Democrats Mark Dayton, Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Matt Entenza offered voters a last-minute refresher Sunday in a gubernatorial debate where all three appeared to play it safe.
The Minnesota Public Radio debate gave the three a final chance to showcase their proposals and differing styles ahead of Tuesday's primary election. Many of the exchanges were almost verbatim from past forums and the main clash points again came on taxes.
A Democrat hasn't won an election for the Minnesota governor's office since 1986, a fact that weighed on the candidates and some in the Fitzgerald Theater crowd. One audience member asked "what the DFL has done wrong" in the last five elections.
Dayton, a former U.S. senator, reminded the audience that he has won twice in statewide elections and was the only one on stage who had.
"I've won statewide elections by running as a Democrat, unabashedly," he said. "As Paul Wellstone said, from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
Kelliher, the House speaker, said voters want a governor who can produce in office not just get there. More than once during the hourlong forum, she touted her ability to build coalitions, including the one that helped her execute the only veto override of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's tenure. It came on a bill raising taxes for transportation programs.
"I have a track record of when things get hard, I keep going," Kelliher said. "I learned that on the family farm I grew up on. You don't quit until the work is done."
Entenza, a former state House minority leader, said he helped pull his party from a funk after the 2002 election left Democrats with their fewest legislative seats in memory and only a couple of statewide offices. By the time he gave up his post, Entenza had pulled House Democrats within reach of the majority.
"The record of futility is great and the cost to our state is huge," he said in a sobering assessment of his party's past in governor's races.
Entenza said the key to turning it around is tailoring a leaner message about what's important. "We have to have focus. The reality is we can't have 30-, 40-, 50-point jobs plans," he said.
Minnesota will elect a new governor no matter what, with Pawlenty passing on the chance at a third term as he explores a run for president.
Republicans are all but certain to nominate state Rep. Tom Emmer. The Independence Party has a large field led by former public relations executive Tom Horner and publisher Rob Hahn.
The Democrats found ways to get digs in on Emmer, who has seldom appeared with them for debates.
Kelliher played up the fact that she's served alongside the GOP legislator.
"I know his tricks and I know his buttons," she said. "That's an important thing."
As has happened in past debates, Dayton found himself on the defensive when it came to taxes. Kelliher and Entenza described his proposal for new income taxes as unrealistic.
"You need to work in the art of the possible," Kelliher said.
Entenza said he has a more balanced plan to repair Minnesota's broken budget. "We need a governor who understands we can't merely tax our way to greatness," he said. "I wish it was that easy."
Dayton wants new taxes to kick in on incomes above $130,000 for individuals and $173,000 for couples. His rivals would start their new taxes on incomes about twice as high, which Kelliher said would prevent it from hitting couples who consider themselves middle-class.
This time, though, Dayton pushed back and accused his opponents of giving the rich a pass.
"Why is it you believe that someone making $240,000 a year should not pay a single dollar more so that we can alleviate overcrowded classroom and provide schools five days a week?" Dayton asked rhetorically.
All three candidates mentioned their ties to Wellstone, who died in a 2002 plane crash and is still revered in Democratic circles. Kelliher has the backing of the late senator's son. Entenza said his first job out of college was under Wellstone.
The debate pulled the candidates away briefly from get-out-the-vote efforts. All weekend long, they fanned out across the state and worked the telephones to sway undecided Democratic voters.
With the state party's help, Kelliher's campaign planned to make 295,000 phone calls and knock on 30,000 doors in the final five days. Dayton has help from the largest state workers union, which is making calls and distributing leaflets to its 38,000 members. Entenza is trying to round up votes in rural areas and minority communities, running ads in places such as the Mogadishu Times and Hmong Minnesota Radio.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)