ST. PAUL, Minn. – Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's approval rating is consistently above 50 percent, and most people in Minnesota tell pollsters the state is on the right track. Unemployment is low. And the mammoth deficit he inherited in 2003 is now a small surplus.
And yet, Pawlenty is either tied with or slightly trailing his Democratic challenger in the polls.
"It's not exactly the tailwind year for Republicans," Pawlenty said. "The headwind coming out of Washington is a challenge."
Pawlenty's opponent, two-term Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch sees an opportunity to snap the Democratic Party's four-election losing streak for the top job in the state that produced such Democratic giants as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy.
"We're doing OK in this state in spite of him," Hatch said, blaming Pawlenty for sharp increases in property taxes, college tuition and schools pleading poverty.
Pawlenty counters that his opponent is not bothering to offer solutions: "It's not about going out and saying everything stinks. It doesn't."
Pawlenty, 45, pushed for a rewrite of state academic standards and launched a program to pay teachers according to performance rather than seniority. On energy and the environment, he set loftier goals for ethanol-based gasoline and mercury reduction.
But to deal with a $4.5 billion projected deficit, he oversaw cuts in education and welfare programs and boosted a range of fees. Last year, he helped push through a 75-cent-per-pack fee on cigarettes. His foes argue that cuts in local aid programs drove up property taxes. Pawlenty ran four years ago on a no-new-taxes pledge.
The property tax message Hatch and outside groups are hitting hard seems to be getting through to voters like retired mechanic Grover McElderry of Independence, a city just beyond the suburbs that is known for big yards and GOP leanings.
"The Republicans have had a long enough shot at it," McElderry said. "Let's put a Democrat in there and see what they can do."
Charlie Weaver, a former chief of staff to Pawlenty, expects the race to be close up to Election Day.
"A legitimate concern for the governor is are Republicans going to vote," Weaver said, citing national GOP struggles and a Senate race in Minnesota that is breaking the Democrats' way. "The Democrats are clearly energized and very organized."
Still, the Democrats have not won the governorship since 1986, losing three times to Republicans and suffering a stunning defeat at the hands of former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura in 1998.
Ventura's Independence Party is in the mix again, but its candidate, consultant Peter Hutchinson, has polled only in the single digits. Some voters say they are impressed by Hutchinson's deep knowledge on policy and his candid style.
"Mike Hatch can be a bit combative and turn people off," said St. Paul mortgage broker Jim White, a self-described Democrat who is weighing a Hutchinson vote. "Tim Pawlenty is very smooth. He's a politician. I don't trust him."
Hatch, 57, sought the governorship twice before but did not win his party's nomination. But he found political redemption in the attorney general's office. There he waged battle with banks over consumer privacy, health companies over executive perks and debt collectors over pushy practices.
While some Republicans see Hatch as too angry, he sees his aggressive approach as an asset. He has run TV commercials with the slogan, "Minnesota tough. Making Minnesota nice."
Sean Kershaw, president of the Citizens League, a nonpartisan think tank, said voters won't get a clearer choice than Hatch and Pawlenty — both on issues and style.
"Pawlenty's personality tends to lend itself to sort of popular appeal. He's the type of guy you'd want to sit down and have a beer with," Kershaw said. "I think Hatch's approach to issues tends to make him appeal to a certain populist streak as he's seen to be fighting for the little guy.
"I don't see how those two are going to work themselves out."