MARSHALL - With Republicans and their four-man gubernatorial primary grabbing the bulk of the headlines from International Falls to Worthington for most of the summer, Gov. Mark Dayton was quietly sitting back, waiting to see who he would be up against in his bid to hold onto his job.
He, and the rest of Minnesota, found out Tuesday who his opponent will be. And it's now time for Dayton to pack his bags and hit the campaign trail for what he said will be the last time.
Dayton, in Marshall for the groundbreaking of the region's new amateur sports complex, said he followed the GOP race with a keen interest to see what issues the candidates were bringing up and their "lines of attack against me. I was a very interested observer."
Dayton will face Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, a conservative who says he will push to lower taxes, cut state spending and grow jobs.
Johnson was the GOP-endorsed candidate, who beat out three others in Tuesday's primary for the right to go up against Dayton.
Dayton, a popular incumbent, likened his position during the summer as the calm before the campaign storm.
"It's kind of like a sunny afternoon and you see these thunderheads on the horizon getting closer and closer - you still have that kind of lull before the storm," he said. "It's quiet, but you know it's about to change. After the primary it really gets down to one candidate against one candidate. It's gets more focused and intense."
Dayton said the GOP primary had four good candidates. He never met Scott Honour, but is very familiar with the others - former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert and Johnson.
"Very well qualified, very experienced candidates, and the closeness of their primary election showed that each one of them had a lot to offer," Dayton said. "We have very different views and that will show in the election."
Dayton said he's prepared for a rigorous campaign that is bound to get heated at times. He knows that's the nature of the beast. He said independent organizations that back a particular party and mostly held unaccountable, are often unknown to the general public and have a tendency to say whatever they want, true or untrue.
"Nasty and ugly - that's just the nature of a modern campaign," he said. "The strategy now seems to be to destroy someone's character as a candidate. That's very unfortunate. Mr. Johnson's a good and decent man; we both have our views, but we both want what's best for Minnesota. Hopefully, we can keep it above the sewer."
Dayton, who was criticized for not attending this year's Farmfest debate with the GOP candidates, said he has agreed to take part in six post-Labor Day public debates with Johnson. That would be a stark contrast to the 30-plus debates he was involved in during his run to the governor's office in 2010.
"We were having two a day, in different parts of the state," he said of the 2010 campaign. "Tom Horner and Tom Emmer were basically campaigning full-time. Now, I have a full-time job; I have four-and-a-half months left in my first term as governor. Regardless of the outcome of the election, that's my job right now and I need to do it and do it well."
Dayton said he would like to have at least half of the debates in greater Minnesota.
Dayton will campaign partly on the state's turnaround since he came into office. He said when he became governor, the state "reversed the hemorrhaging" by taking a $6 billion projected deficit, and turned it into a budget surplus.
"And we paid back the $20 billion that was borrowed from the schools, and we've cleared up the other gimmicks that were embedded in the state budget," he said. "We have a straightforward, honest, fiscally-responsible government. We've made investments in public education, early childhood education, tuition freezes at MnSCU and university campuses."
While Republicans have made a "big deal" about taxes going up under his leadership, he said for the most part it's the wealthiest 2 percent who have been affected by the tax increase.
"For most people, income taxes went down with some of the reforms from the last session," he said. "I think we've taken a balanced approach."
He also said more than 1,000 pieces of legislation were removed during his "Un-session" this year and have streamlined government agencies from the DNR to services for veterans.
Dayton admits MNsure got off to a bad start, but said things have improved - the percentage of uninsured Minnesotans, he said, has dropped by about 40 percent in the time MNsure has been up and running. He said Minnesota didn't just invent MNsure out of nothing - the state had a choice to set up a state exchange or go with the federal model of health care, which is also having its issues.
"It's definitely improving and will continue to improve," he said. "Virtually everyone involved with health care in Minnesota - the hospitals, doctors, nurses, businesses, the Minnesota Chamber - recommended setting up a state exchange. No question in my mind that decision was the right one."