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An Act of Kindness, or A Blunder?

Although he is not up for re-election until 2006, Sen. Mark Dayton’s (D-Minn.) decision to shutter his Capitol Hill office until after Election Day has Minnesotans chatting about his future political viability.

“It’s a huge story. People are very, very surprised,” said Sarah Janecek, a co-editor of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter. “It’s so visceral to regular people; it will no doubt be an issue for him in two years.”

After reflecting on the top-secret intelligence briefing that he and every other Senator received about terrorist threats against Washington, Dayton announced last week that his Hill office would stay closed while Congress was on its pre-election recess.

“I would not bring my two sons to the Capitol between now and the election and I say that out of extreme but necessary precaution,” Dayton told reporters Oct. 12.

Since then he has not backed away from his decision, despite enduring ridicule from Republicans and some Democrats alike, and he remains the only Member who reached such a conclusion.

He said he could not leave his staff to take a risk he would not share, as he would be in Minnesota during the election recess. He then added that he was prepared to suffer the consequences.

“I hope and pray that the precautions I’ve taken will prove unnecessary,” he said last week. “If so, I will accept the inevitable judgments made with perfect hindsight.”

Dayton might be hoping that voters will forgive and forget before 2006 or respect that he made a tough decision based on conviction rather than political expediency.

“Senator Dayton’s number one priority is and will continue to be the safety and security of his staff and his constituents. The political implications, if any, definitely take a back seat,” Chris Lisi, Dayton’s spokeswoman, said Monday.

But if the present response to his actions is any indication, it seems Dayton will still have some explaining to do before he seeks a second term.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune had harsh words for the senior Senator last week.

If Dayton was bent on making the point that more needs to be done to protect the country from terrorists, “it’s difficult to imagine a worse way,” the editors wrote Thursday. “Instead of pointing out the emperor’s startling nakedness, Dayton has cast himself as the lone little chicken who claims the sky is falling.”

After almost a week of having abuse heaped on him, it appears the heir to the Dayton Hudson department store fortune is finding some solace.

One reader of the Star Tribune wrote in a letter to the editor that “it seems to me that his concern is for his staff and not himself, which I feel is commendable.”

Dayton defended himself in an eloquent op-ed in the Star Tribune on Sunday, saying in part: “Some have said, from their own safety far away from Washington, that my action sends the wrong ‘message.’ My staff are not ‘messages.’ They are real people. … Most of them are young, and many are the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of Minnesotans. Their lives are precious, and they are my responsibility.”

Janecek says that Dayton likely will have to apologize if he expects voters not to hold his decision against him in 2006.

“It’s a big one, unless he apologizes,” she said. “I think he could survive it if he apologizes, but if he stands out there alone — it’s impossible to defend one Senator making the call that the Capitol is unsafe.”

Janecek added that the real test for Dayton’s future viability as a candidate will be known after Nov. 2. If President Bush carries Minnesota, Dayton is in real trouble, she said. If Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carries the state, he has a shot.

Barry Casselman, who writes a weekly column in the Washington Times and specializes in Minnesota politics, says it is too early to call Dayton’s move political suicide.

“I can imagine the political ad but the public’s memory on such things is short,” Casselman said. “I caution reading too much into its long-term impact.”

Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said dire predictions ignore the goodwill Dayton has built up in the Gopher State.

“People should not underestimate the power and popularity of Mark Dayton’s name in the state of Minnesota,” Woodhouse said.

While Republicans likely are relishing the drubbing Dayton is taking, they were cautious to pile on too soon.

“As odd and strange as what Mark Dayton did is, everybody … is focused on ’04 now,” said Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “After the Louisiana runoffs in December, people will start to think about ’06.”

Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), who most observers think will challenge Dayton in two years, assuming he survives a surprisingly stiff challenge from political neophyte Patty Wetterling (D) next month, also shied away from prognosticating about Dayton’s future.

Though Kennedy had some harsh words for Dayton about his decision, his campaign spokeswoman would only say that Kennedy is focused on Nov. 2, not a potential Senate race in 2006.

Others, including the Star Tribune, were quick to point out that Dayton’s surprise move is not an isolated incident and suggested it reveals a pattern of erratic behavior.

“If you look at his record, there is a pattern of rash behavior that doesn’t help him either,” said Randy Wanke, spokesman for the Republican Party of Minnesota. “He boycotted interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s speech to the Congress. He has a reputation for being rash; this is something that isn’t going to help his cause.”

The Star Tribune, in its editorial, noted that Dayton’s decision will add to the “unfortunate aspects of his reputation: loner, loose cannon, flake.”

Casselman observed that what Dayton is more likely doing with such individualistic acts is not trying to isolate himself but rather chart his own course.

“He has consistently attempted to be his own version of [the late] Sen. Paul Wellstone [D-Minn.],” Casselman said, adding that Dayton has been successful when advocating for access to cheaper Canadian prescription drugs for senior citizens and less so when staking out some foreign policy positions.

“Wellstone could pull it off,” Casselman said. “It is much harder for Mark Dayton.”