A new look for third party in Minn. race

Gubernatorial candidate Penny proves a low-key contrast to Ventura

October 29, 2002|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CANNON FALLS, Minn.-At a heavily attended fund-raiser for gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny here the other night, Gov. Jesse Ventura, the man Penny seeks to replace as the champion of Minnesota's political independents, was in his usual self-congratulatory form.

Towering over the microphone, Ventura reminded Penny and the crowd that in his 1998 upset victory he was at 10 percent in the polls before the election against established Democratic and Republican candidates. "Don't believe the polls," he advised.

If the former pro wrestler intended to make a comparison of his lot then and that of independent Penny now, it seemed a strange one. In the latest poll for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Penny was in a virtual three-way tie with the Democratic nominee, Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, and the Republican candidate, House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty.

That is hardly the only difference between Ventura, gruff and rough-cut, and Penny, a scholarly and mild-mannered Donald H. Rumsfeld lookalike.

Ventura burst on the political scene in 1998 as an oddity; Penny is a 12-year conservative Democratic veteran of the U.S. House who gave up politics in 1994 and returned to Minnesota. Ventura often comes across as a loose cannon; Penny was a budget deficit wonk in the House and remains so today.

The main similarity between the two is that both are disenchanted with the major parties, and it was Ventura's decision not to seek a second four-year term that brought Penny out of political retirement in a bid to succeed him.

Because the two men are so different and because the Independent Party in Minnesota up to now has been essentially a one-man Ventura show, Penny's challenge is to convince voters with substance rather than pizazz that the third-party way remains the answer for the state.

He appeared to be doing a fair job of it, as the Star Tribune poll indicated. It showed Moe and Pawlenty with 29 percent each and Penny with 27, in a survey taken before the tragic death of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone in a plane crash last week turned all politics in Minnesota on its head.

The showing was encouraging for Penny in light of the fact that Ventura's tenure - eccentric, erratic and marked by endless squabbles with the Democratic-controlled state Senate and the Republican-led state House -has not been much of an advertisement for third-party politics.

But on this night Ventura was in there pitching for Penny. "We are part today of a centrist movement - the common-sense movement," the retiring governor said.

Ventura, who likes to rail against "career politicians," cited Penny's 12 years in Congress as a recommendation but quickly called attention to his "10-year hiatus in the private sector" (actually eight years), while painting Moe and Pawlenty, longtime state legislators, as careerists.

Penny, following Ventura and speaking to many of his old congressional constituents, said he had gotten out of politics because he was disgusted with the partisanship he saw in Congress and wanted to come home "to get a real life" for himself and his family. "I didn't want to be a career politician."

But now, he said, he is getting back in because "the governorship is all about Minnesota" and he believes "the challenges are as great as they've been in decades."

"We've got to get it right," he said, "but trust me, we won't get it right if we go back to the same old politics."

Penny has chosen a Republican state legislator to run with him, and says his campaign has done no polling, and has taken no special-interest money while raising nearly $1 million. He has vowed to run no negative advertising.

Moe and Pawlenty, rivals in the state legislature for years who have effectively blunted Ventura's unorthodox style and agenda, are hoping that the appeal of Penny's more laid-back manner and clean-politics promises will be trumped by the experience of four years of legislative gridlock under an independent governor.

With Ventura retiring, the future of the independent movement started by him in Minnesota is likely to rest on whether Penny can pull out a victory against the formidable Democratic and Republican opposition he faces next Tuesday.

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