MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesota is seeing its most competitive governor's race in years, with strong candidates from both major parties vying to replace Gov. Mark Dayton, who decided not to seek a third term.

The DFL primary pits three very strong candidates against each other, which has already generated strong turnout in early voting.

Rep. Tim Walz

Congressman Tim Walz of Mankato had the early momentum in the race. A lot of pundits were high on Walz as a statewide candidate, because he had notched six victories running as a Democrat in the Republican-leaning 1st District.

"I think that sets me apart, coming from an area where I have lived and operated, and not just win elections in a Republican area, but pass legislation in a Republican Congress that benefited all people," Rep. Walz told KARE.

"I'm the only one in the race who wakes up in Greater Minnesota every day."

Walz picked his running mate, Rep. Peggy Flanagan of St. Louis Park, to make a stronger connection with Twin Cities Democrats. Flanagan, as a member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation, would also make history by becoming the state's first Indigenous lieutenant governor.

But Walz -- a high school geography teacher, football coach and retired National Guard sergeant major -- has forcefully rejected the rural-versus-urban narrative that often emanates from conservative lawmakers at the State Capitol.

"Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities are One Minnesota, and we benefit together," he explained.

"If the economy of Minneapolis and St. Paul is good, the economy of Sleepy Eye is good; if the economy of Mountain Iron is good, then those things work for all of us too."

Rep. Erin Murphy

But it was Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul, a former Minnesota House Majority Leader, who captured the party's endorsement at the DFL state convention in Rochester in June.

"Especially in the last four years, I've watched the legislature move in the direction of Washington, D.C., focusing too much on how to win the next election, how to beat the other side, and what's getting lost in that is Minnesota's future," Rep. Murphy told KARE.

Murphy, a career nurse, supports moving to a single payer health system. She backs a proposal to allow people who currently make too much money to qualify for the Minnesota Care system to buy into it by paying premiums.

"I have a lot of faith with our doctors and our nurses, who will provide the kind of care that people need without the oversight of the health plans who are using those tools to deny people care."

Part of her pitch to Democratic voters is that she's always had an "F" grade from the National Rifle Association, while her DFL primary opponents have earned A's from the the NRA in the past.

Murphy picked her own buzz-worthy running mate, Rep. Erin Maye Quade of Apple Valley. She's a biracial, married lesbian who made a splash in her first two years at the Capitol.

Murphy said she's not concerned at about the lack of geographic balance on the ticket, asserting that Maye Quade has connections to many communities that reflect the future demographics of the state.

"Erin shares my values, she shares my ambition for the state of Minnesota. She’s got roots in Greater Minnesota. Her family is from the Iron Range. Her wife’s family is from Jeffers, which is down near Windom," Murphy explained.

"But I don’t think the zip code is what matters. I think it's about showing up to fight for the people of Minnesota."

Lori Swanson

Early speculation was all about Attorney General Lori Swanson, who has earned a reputation as a consumer watchdog in her 12 years in office. But Swanson announced in January she wouldn't run for governor, due to the demands of the pending trial over 3M's groundwater pollution in the eastern Twin Cities Metro.

She said she would, instead, seek a fourth term in her current post.

But Swanson reached a landmark $850 million settlement in that case in February. She says her skills as a seasoned negotiator will help her solve partisan gridlock at the State Capitol.

"In this last legislative session, we saw a lot of things the parties seemingly agreed on, dealing with the opioid crisis, having tax conformity, protecting our senior citizens and nursing homes, yet we didn't get those kinds of reforms passed," Swanson told KARE.

"I’ve got a track record as attorney general of taking on tough problems, and getting solutions for people, taking on problems other people don’t want to solve."

In addition to the 3M pollution case, she cited her involvement resolving a contract dispute between Blue Cross and Children's Hospitals, that had threatened to disrupt many families' lives.

She said her "moonshot" issue as governor, would be increasing access to mental health services, which includes boosting spending for school counselors.

"Minnesota is fourth from the bottom in the number of school counselors. We have, I think one school counselor for every 723 kids – fourth worst in the country," she lamented.

"I’d up that, I’d bring more money to the schools, so we could have more counselors who could then identify the kids who might pose a risk."

Last-minute entry

And yet Swanson was still running for Attorney General when the DFL state convention began June 3.

She didn't address delegates, who instead heard the Swanson pitch from former Attorney General Mike Hatch.

Swanson didn't reach the minimum 60 percent threshold for endorsement on the first ballot, so she abruptly removed her name from consideration.

Two days later, just a day before the filing deadline, Swanson announced she was switching races. She would run for governor after all.

And, to add to the drama, she announced that popular 8th District Congressman Rick Nolan would be her running mate. They described themselves as the "problem solver ticket" that would try to lift politics beyond partisan bickering.

Swanson also said, as governor, she would try to make a personal connection with all of the lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

"People who run for office, they’re not bad people – nobody runs and says I’m gonna be a jerk, but yet they get elected and you do see the butting of the heads."