When Minnesota voters hauled off and elected ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor back in 1998, many wags thought it was a joke, a fluke, or worse.
This year, Tim Penny aims to prove them wrong and he's got a decent shot at succeeding.
Campaigning for governor as Mr. Ventura's handpicked Independence-Party heir, Mr. Penny is running close to his Democratic and Republican rivals.
With no other candidate nationwide able to make that boast, Penny is the new face of third-party politics in America. Yet he's no Ventura. He's a former congressman and college professor who speaks in a near-monotone and prefers tweed jackets and earth-toned ties to pink boas and leather. He's even perfectly happy to be called "boring."
Indeed, Penny's run is the ultimate test of whether, even in just one state, third-party politics can prosper beyond quirky, forceful personalities like Ventura or Ross Perot and mature into a full-fledged political force with a legitimate party infrastructure and a real voice in the halls of power.
"The best hope for third parties right now is in Minnesota politics," says David Gillespie, a political scientist at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., and a third-party expert.
This state has already elected two independent governors in a row (albeit in the 1930s). It's a place where no-nonsense residents, many of hardy Scandinavian extraction, eschew ideology and value practicality.
In other states, Penny's political cousins Libertarians, Greens, and others typically represent political extremes. That's sometimes enough to make them spoilers as they could be in close Senate contests in Colorado, Missouri, and South Dakota, a House race in Colorado, and the governor's race in Wisconsin.
But only Penny is actually competing with the big parties.
Polls have long showed Penny roughly tied with Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party nominee Roger Moe and Republican Tim Pawlenty. A Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll out this week showed Penny slipping to about 10 points behind his rivals. But a St. Cloud State University survey released yesterday showed the race had tightened again with Mr. Pawlenty at 30 percent, Mr. Moe at 27 percent, and Penny at 26 percent.
In the wake of Senator Wellstone's death last week and a controversial memorial service that Republicans say was overly partisan both big parties are motivated to score big turnouts. This could hurt Penny if he's unable to muster a big turnout.
Indeed, Penny and other Independence Party candidates or "Ippers" as some call them still lack serious organizational muscle. There isn't even a central Independence Party office. Party leaders typically work out of their home offices. "Most of us have fast DSL lines, so we can keep in constant touch by computer," says the party's acting chief Nancy Jorgenson.
But Penny is still viable, in part, because he's not on the ideological margins. The former Democrat is running a centrist campaign akin to President Clinton's brand of fiscally-conservative, socially moderate politics. He's also refused special-interest money and isn't running negative ads.
Like the big-party candidates, Penny is focusing on the state's expected $3.8 billion budget deficit. He blames them and special interests that back them for rejecting Ventura's budget plan. Both men are senior legislative leaders. His opponents say that, like Ventura, a Governor Penny would lack the political network and support to govern the state effectively.
Indeed, Ventura's legacy looms large over Penny. If there is any consensus here about Ventura, it's that he smartly tapped voter discontent to win but wasn't adept at using it to govern.
"Jesse Ventura didn't have a clue about politics, and he found out that the political institutions are going to undermine any personality, no matter how strong it is," says Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist. But Penny "has the temperament and skills to govern."
Or as Penny himself puts it in an interview: Ventura "broke the door down," but "in order to solidify the gains he made, he's passing the torch" to more-mature political leadership.
This Tuesday, will be the test of whether such leadership minus big personality is enough.