ST. PAUL -- The underlying theory of the Minnesota State Fair appears to be that anything edible will be improved if it is deep-fried, or impaled on a stick or, preferably, both.
Other states may settle for corn on a stick, or corn dogs on a stick, or even pork on a stick. But along the broad carnival midways here, you can find not only all that but also deep-fried pickles, deep-fried alligator and deep-fried macaroni and cheese -- all jabbed on a stick. Not to mention Snickers and Milky Way's deep-fried in doughnut batter, hoisted on a stick and then rolled in powdered sugar because, apparently, a doughnut-coated candy bar isn't quite sweet enough on its own.
This astonishing culinary excess doesn't do anything good for the state's collective cholesterol level, but it does suggest Minnesota isn't quite as you-betcha bland as it sometimes looks from the outside. Its politics send the same message. This is the only state, after all, that has recently elected as its governor a former pro wrestler. And now with Jesse Ventura stepping down after a tumultuous term, the state could make history again in choosing his successor.
Ventura's 1998 victory as a third-party candidate was a shock, but not unprecedented. Charismatic independent and third-party candidates have periodically stormed past the two major parties and won governorships. But they have almost never been able to institutionalize their success and create a viable party that could compete after they stepped aside.
This fall's election will test whether Ventura's Independence Party can break that precedent and emerge as a durable alternative to the two major parties here, or is doomed to also drift toward irrelevance -- a prospect with daunting implications for fledgling third-party efforts in other states.
"The question for third parties is: Do we get these charismatic individuals periodically who really are the engine that pulls the train, and then when they disappear from the scene, no one else can sustain it?" says Micah Sifry, author of a new history of independent party movements, "Spoiling for a Fight."
The last two governors elected as independents before Ventura left nothing behind. Lowell Weicker won the Connecticut governorship in 1990, but his lieutenant governor finished a weak third in the race to succeed him and his third-party soon vanished. Independent Maine Gov. Angus King, forced by a two-term limit to step down this year, didn't even endorse a potential successor.
In fact, since World War I, only once has any state voted to succeed one third-party governor with another from the same party. That happened in Minnesota, when Floyd Olson, the visionary leader of the left-leaning Farmer-Labor Party, served three terms as governor during the Depression, and Elmer Benson held the seat in 1936 after Olson died.
Now the Independence Party has a chance to repeat that distant history. Early polls show its gubernatorial nominee, Tim Penny, running even with Democrat Roger Moe and Republican Tim Pawlenty, the majority leaders in the state Senate and House respectively.
Penny, a former Democrat who served in the U.S. House and advised Ventura, fits the same ideological pattern as the outgoing governor: He's fiscally conservative but moderate on social issues (having renounced his earlier support for banning abortion). But stylistically, the button-down Penny is to Ventura as college wrestling is to the WWF: He's serious, earnest and a bit dry. There's little chance Penny will electrify younger voters and blue-collar men the way Ventura did while surging to victory in 1998.
But a few hours with Penny at the state fair makes clear he has his own sober appeal to what he calls "the sensible center." When he appears, a middle-aged crowd forms almost immediately -- and stays, waiting patiently to ask detailed questions. Keeping with the fair's motif, his supporters hand out propaganda-on-a-stick hand fans with Penny's slogans. "Thank you very much for running," Robert Rasmussen, a local teacher tells him. "It gives us moderates someone to vote for."
Penny's campaign is so crucial for the Independence Party because it made so little progress at building on Ventura's initial popularity. The party is still more of an idea than an institution. It doesn't have an office or a full-time staff. Nor has it elected a single senator or representative to the state Legislature (though one state senator joined while in office.) That's largely because Ventura had little interest in fund raising or recruiting. "Governor Ventura has done some things to help the party," says Jack Uldrich, the former party chairman now managing Penny's campaign, "but he never saw party-building as one of his jobs."
The contrast with the Farmer-Labor Party, founded in the 1920s, is telling. Olson was an energetic organizer, and at the party's peak in 1936 it controlled not only the governorship but majorities of the state House of Representatives, and the state's congressional delegation. Eventually, local Democrats sued for peace in a merger arranged by a young Hubert Humphrey, which is why Democrats here still run under the banner of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
Even at the peak of his popularity -- which has now faded amid emotional outbursts and a wearying war over the state budget -- Ventura, a true product of the media age, didn't recognize the value of building such a party around him. That hurt Ventura's own cause because he never elected legislators who might fight for his ideas. But it's hurt the Independence Party more by leaving it with so little to show for Ventura's stormy tenure.
Ventura seems genuinely interested in helping Penny. The two men appeared together at the fair on Friday; Ventura, chomping on a huge unlit cigar and looking oddly like Penny's bodyguard, told admirers, "It's time to move on; now it's Tim's turn." But to secure their future, Independence Party leaders recognize they also will have to elect some of the nearly 60 state house candidates they are fielding this year -- and that's a tougher challenge. Only a handful are considered viable.
The risk is failure begetting failure: If the party can't win some elections now, it will have more trouble recruiting viable candidates in 2004, especially if Penny doesn't hold the governorship. This fall's results will determine whether the Ventura era here was like the fair itself -- loud, boisterous and brief -- or something more lasting.
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