Ventura Exits Minnesota, but Third-Party Hopes Live ; Governor's Race Is Neck and Neck ... and Neck as Tim Penny Vies with Big-Party Rivals

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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.

A state partial to third-parties

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. …