- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

Minnesota has caught the national eye with some regularity since the days of its "Boy Governor" Harold Stassen, and subsequently with a series of prominent political figures, including Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, the ultimately feckless Eugene McCarthy and, most recently, that knight of the feather boa, Jesse Ventura. With Mr. Ventura's announcement of his early retirement recently, it would seem that the Gopher State would quickly fade from national view.

Not so. As circumstances would have it, three statewide races, one for the U.S. House, one for the U.S. Senate and the race for governor to succeed Mr. Ventura, all are so important or unusual that, back in the District of Columbia and its East Coast media environs, attention remains fixed on the relatively small northern prairie state. Washington baseball fans might be watching a bit enviously, because the Minnesota Twins (formerly the Washington Senators), are way out in front in their division, and are good candidates this year for the World Series. But D.C. political pundits and politicos are watching the state with a fall classic of their own in mind control of the Congress and a test of President Bush' electoral popularity a year after September 11.

Not only was Mr. Ventura's retirement a surprise to many local folks, but his immediate endorsement of former Democratic Rep. Tim Penny to be his successor has also turned a somewhat provincial gubernatorial election into a fascinating and apocalyptic contest. Mr. Penny, well-known as a centrist maverick in his Washington days, has decided to abandon his lifelong Democratic-Farmer-Labor (or DFL, as the state Democratic Party is known) affiliation to join Mr. Ventura's Independence Party.

As his running mate, Mr. Penny has chosen a prominent moderate Republican state senator who had been defeated for party re-endorsement by a social conservative. More such party-switching announcements, from prominent DFLers and other Republicans, are reportedly expected. Lacking Mr. Ventura' flamboyance, Mr. Penny has staked out the "sensible center" as his political domain with a taciturn Norwegian-American wonkishness that just might be what voters in the state are looking for this year. In addition to the DFL candidate, liberal State Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, one of the state's most experienced and successful legislators ever; and the GOP candidate, State House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, a young and bright conservative, this race is further complicated by an articulate ultra-liberal Green Party candidate, Ken Pentel. (In the populist paradise of Minnesota, both the Independence and Green parties are also classified as "major" parties, and receive substantial public funds for their campaigns.) An early Minneapolis Star Tribune poll has the race a toss-up, with Mr. Pawlenty at 26 percent, Messrs. Penny and Moe at 25 percent, and Mr. Pentel at 5 percent. Any of the first three could win this, probably the most curious race for governor in the nation this year.

With control of the U.S. Senate possibly turning, as it does now, on one seat, the race between liberal DFL incumbent Paul Wellstone and moderate GOP conservative Norm Coleman could be pivotal. The White House evidently thinks so, having persuaded Mr. Coleman to run, and with Mr. Bush already making his second campaign visit to the state this year for his candidate, the former mayor of St. Paul. This race is not so complicated although there will also be Independence and Green party candidates in it as well. Mr. Wellstone, who is pro-choice, refuses to back off from his well-known class warfare rhetoric, but his poll numbers have been in the dangerously low 40s. Mr. Cjoholeman, who is pro-life, is running on his successful record of reviving St. Paul, but faces an energetic incumbent who has so far placed him on the defensive. It will be a long and testy summer and autumn before either candidate emerges with a decisive lead.

Minnesota's congressional redistricting produced a potential bonus for national Republicans, who will probably need every seat they can take to maintain control of the House. Incumbent DFL Rep. Bill Luther has now faced his GOP challenger, retired Marine Col. John Kline twice, in 1998 and 2000, and won both races by a small margin. But in 2002, they face each other in a mostly new district (in which both of them are unknown to two-thirds of the voters). While the old 6th District was evenly matched with DFL and GOP voters, Republican Kline goes into the new 2nd District with more than a 10-point party identification advantage. Mr. Luther, perhaps the House's best fund-raiser, will have more campaign funds, but Mr. Kline has already exceeded expectations for the June 30 deadline, and should be competitive. Moderate liberal Mr. Luther is a tireless campaigner, and has already tried to label Mr. Kline as an extremist by citing his conservative statements from their previous campaigns. The Kline campaign counters that this is unlikely to stick in a Republican district, and to a career Marine officer who was both military aide to Presidents Reagan and Carter, and a combat commander in Somalia.

This will be one of the most hard-fought and bellwether congressional races this year.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1976.

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