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Vote is today in high-profile special election

Associated Press

ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- Central Minnesota voters go to the polls today to decide one of the most high-profile special elections for the state Legislature in recent years.

There was the disqualification of Republican House candidate Sue Ek on residency grounds last week, which leaves only DFLer Larry Haws on the ballot -- although Ek's mother has started an 11th-hour write-in campaign

There were allegations from DFLers that Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty scheduled the election two days after Christmas so vacationing college students wouldn't vote.

Party loyalists have also denounced a brochure from Republican Senate nominee Dan "Ox" Ochsner which was edited to transform a rally for President Bush into one for Ochsner.

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The Republicans, meanwhile, are calling DFL Senate candidate Tarryl Clark a "Twin Cities ultra-liberal" who ignores some lobbying disclosure reports because of her background as a lobbyist for nonprofit groups.

The special election was called because both Republican Sen. David Kleis and DFL Rep. Joe Opatz stepped down from the Legislature. In November, Kleis was elected mayor of St. Cloud. Opatz was appointed interim president of Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

In the Senate race, the Independence Party's Dan Becker is running against Ochsner and Clark. In the House race, Kay Ek, a Republican, announced she would seek write-in votes after her daughter was disqualified.

While Haws, a three-term Stearns County commissioner, is thought to have the edge in the House race, the Senate campaign is much tighter. However, even Pawlenty suggested last week that Clark will probably win.

Clark has the advantage of running against Kleis in both 2000 and 2002. She lost both times.

"Tarryl has run twice before," said Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar. "She's a known commodity in the St. Cloud area. We're cautiously optimistic."

Johnson said that while central Minnesota is known for its religious conservatism, those might not be the issues that carry the day today.

"Core issues" such as education, transportation, health care and the environment are gaining more attention from voters, he said.

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Still, Ochsner, Ek and Becker all tout their opposition to abortion, support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage and fiscal conservatism.

Those issues might play better with St. Cloud State's 15,400 students on break, a fact that Pawlenty's office said had nothing to do with its decision to set the election date.

Pawlenty's office said previous governors have also set elections during the holiday season. Further, delaying this one could have increased costs because of federal voting-equipment mandates that take effect Jan. 1.

DFL critics are also ruffled by Ochsner's campaign brochure with a doctored photo from a 2004 Bush rally that Ochsner hosted. The Bush-Cheney signs were changed to ones for "Ox."

Critics say the brochure calls into question Ochsner's claim to be "Central Minnesota's voice of integrity."

Ochsner defended editing as a necessary shortcut in a brief campaign. "We had to get things going quick," he said. "Nobody thought there was anything wrong with it. There's no legal problems with it."

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