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Gubernatorial candidates woo Olmsted Republicans

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On the eve of a statewide Republican straw poll, all five candidates trekked to Rochester on Friday for the chance to win over the party faithful.

More than 50 people showed up to hear from the candidates hoping to defeat DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014. Participating in the forum were Hibbing teacher Rob Farnsworth, Wayzata businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, state Sen. Dave Thompson and state Rep. Kurt Zellers.

For the candidates, it was a chance to try to win over delegates in the state's second-largest local GOP political unit. Today, Republican delegates will gather in Blaine for the party's state convention to vote in two straw polls — for governor and one for U.S. Senate. While the poll is nonbinding, it does provide an early indication of the candidates' popularity among the base.

Agreement, but differences

During the Rochester forum, all five gubernatorial candidates said Democrats have taken the state in the wrong direction by raising taxes and expanding the size of government. They argued it is time to focus on fiscal responsibility and improving the state's job climate. While they all agreed on these core principles, differences did emerge among the candidates.

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Zellers, former House speaker, touted his experience taking on Dayton as a key reason why he should be elected. He said during the 2011 government shutdown, he refused to back down to the governor's demands that taxes be raised. He told the crowd that Minnesotans are suffering as a result of the taxes passed by the DFL-led Legislature last session.

Zellers, of Maple Grove, also vowed to support efforts to mine copper and nickel in the state, something he said Dayton and "his liberal environmentalist friends" have been blocking.

Thompson, of Lakeville, said it is important for the party to start listening to its conservative members if it wants to win.

"For too long, we conservatives in Minnesota have been told to shut up and sit down, and I'm not prepared to do that anymore," he said.

If elected, he would focus on two key principles when making decisions. The first would be to elevate the individual over the state. The second would be to enforce the idea of personal responsibility.

Concerned about future

Johnson said he decided to run because he is concerned his two children won't want to stay in Minnesota because of the direction it is headed. If elected, his No. 1 priority would be to improve the state's job climate by focusing on tax reform, regulation reform and passing right-to-work legislation.

"We cannot continue to roll over for Wisconsin and North Dakota and South Dakota. They are literally stealing our entrepreneurs," he said.

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Johnson added that in order for a Republican to win back the Governor's Mansion, delegates need to get behind a candidate who can attract votes from independents and even some Democrats.

Honour cast himself as the anti-politician, touting his years working in the private sector working to build a a technology company that employs more than 100 people.

"I've heard from folks that they hear politicians doing a lot of talking, promising, saying that they'll stand on principles, but at the end of the day, our agenda is not getting passed, and as a result, Minnesota continues to underachieve its potential," he said.

He rattled off a lengthy list of Republican-backed measures that failed to get done when Republicans ran the Legislature, including right-to-work, education reform and school choice. If elected, he said he would focus on creating jobs in the state and improving its education system.

Farnsworth described himself as an unlikely Republican, having grown up in the DFL-dominant Iron Range and an active member of the teacher's union. But he said he is deeply concerned about the direction the state and country are headed. He said Minnesota is a less safe state than it used to be, and it is important to prioritize funding for public safety. He also would support legislation requiring a life sentence for anyone convicted of molesting children.

"I am passionate about keeping our kids safe from sex offenders," he said.

Farnsworth said he also disagrees with some in the Republican Party who argue it's time to stop talking about social issues such as abortion.

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