ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Gov. Arne Carlson, bucking the drive of ultraconservative and religious political activists to oust him in next Tuesday's Republican primary, should take heart in the polls. A prominent one, in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, has him beating his challenger on the party's right, Allen Quist, by a whopping 64 percent to 26 percent.
Such a result not only would comfort political leaders here and around the country concerned about the increasing influence of the religious right in the GOP, but it also would propel Carlson into a solid position to be re-elected in November.
But polls, Carlson learned four years ago, cannot be taken as gospel. Then, he was leading his primary opponent for the gubernatorial nomination by 27 percentage points, yet he lost. He was elected anyway on a fluke when the candidate who beat him in the primary withdrew in a personal scandal. Carlson as the primary runner-up replaced him on the party ticket and beat the erratic incumbent Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich.
Carlson's failure to win the 1990 nomination of the Independent Republican Party, as the GOP calls itself here, reflected hostility toward him as an internal critic of the growing influence of ultraconservatives in the state party, going back to the early 1980s.
In his four years as governor, that criticism and the right wing's enmity have only increased, to the point that party activists endorsed Quist overwhelmingly in the state convention in June. Carlson, insisting the endorsement means nothing, plunged on, using his incumbency, a fat campaign war chest and attacks on Quist and his followers to forge the wide lead he enjoys in the polls.
Carlson insists important differences exist between now and 1990 that will produce a victory in Tuesday's primary. Four years ago, he notes, John Grunseth also was a moderate and that vote was split, whereas the ideological difference between himself and Quist is crystal clear.
Quist, a former state legislator and active corn and soybean farmer, says the clear ideological split is what will make him an upset winner on Tuesday. The polls, he says, "don't measure the likelihood of people voting, and conservatives vote more consistently."
Quist's campaign manager, Leon Oisted, predicts that while turnout will be low, in the range of 20-23 percent, "the passion is on our side," with such issues as abortion, taxes and gun control -- and deep animosity toward Carlson -- luring conservatives to the ballot box.
To underscore the ideological difference, Quist has painted Carlson as a closet Democrat more in tune with President Clinton than with his own party. One Quist ad shows Carlson and Clinton look-alikes tap dancing together as a narrator lists issue positions they share.
The ad may have backfired on Quist because it charges that Carlson, who says he backs "current law" on abortion (Roe vs. Wade), therefore favors "legalized abortion into the ninth month" of pregnancy. Carlson has sued Quist under the state's fair campaign practices law. Furthermore, the Carlson camp says the charge underscores the extremism and quirky reasoning that drive Quist, also illustrated in Quist remarks that there is "genetic predisposition" for men to head families.
Also, Quist has acknowledged that when his first wife, then pregnant with their 10th child, was killed in a car accident several years ago, he ordered that the fetus be displayed with her in an open casket. It was an aid to his family's grieving, the candidate said. The Carlson camp "has done a pretty good job of demonizing him," says D.J. Leary, a veteran political newsletter author.
In Carlson's own zeal to paint Quist as a dangerous zealot, he recently charged that while Quist had the backing of only "a narrow sliver" of party voters, "a narrow sliver has the ability to take over an entire system" and "that clearly is how Hitler started out." That remark drew stiff protests from the Quist camp. But even Oisted says it probably has not hurt Carlson much.
Carlson proved in 1990 he could be a winning general election candidate. But once again, the challenge is getting past the primary in his own increasingly conservative party.