Third-party candidate rocks tight Minnesota Senate race
An Independence Party candidate with ties to a former Minnesota governor is throwing an unexpected wrench into the nation’s most expensive Senate race after just two months on the stump, stealing support from both Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and his challenger, Democratic comic Al Franken.
Dean Barkley, a lawyer appointed by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura to serve out the late Paul Wellstone’s Senate term in 2002, is polling at 14 percent among Minnesota voters, who some say are becoming increasingly weary of the bickering between Mr. Coleman and former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Mr. Franken of the state’s Democratic FarmerLabor Party.
A Minneapolis Star Tribune poll released two weeks ago showed support ebbing for both major-party candidates, with Mr. Coleman taking the biggest hit, leading Mr. Franken by just four percentage points, 41 percent to 37 percent.
Since the paper’s last poll, conducted in May, Mr. Coleman’s support has dropped by 10 percent while Mr. Franken’s has fallen by 7 percent. By contrast, a new KSTP/Survey USA poll has Mr. Coleman at 41 percent and Mr. Franken at 40 percent, a statistical dead heat.
“The Barkley candidacy is legitimate, and he’s doing well,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. “Both Coleman and Franken have really high negatives, so I think clearly Minnesota voters have questions about both of these candidates.”
Mr. Barkley, a founder of the Minnesota Reform Party, faces an uphill battle on a shoestring budget as the front-runners have already raised a record $27 million, according to figures released in June. On Sept. 19, MoveOn.org issued a letter of appeal from former Vice President Al Gore to voters on behalf of three Democratic congressional candidates, including Mr. Franken. Mr. Gore is expected to stump for Mr. Franken in Minnesota next month.
The Barkley campaign is doing well enough to have been included in all five candidate debates — a schedule of weekly showdowns starting Oct. 5 and ending Nov. 2, on which the three campaigns signed off two weeks ago.
Though Mr. Barkley, 58, initially seemed the greatest threat to Mr. Franken, his candidacy seems to be threatening Mr. Coleman the most, said Mr. Jacobs, who describes Mr. Barkley as “a guy who thrives on his authenticity.”
“I think part of the reason Repub- licans may be fleeing from Norm Coleman to Dean Barkley is that they are not entirely convinced that Norm Coleman truly embraces Republican principles,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Dean Barkley’s message of fiscal responsibility and balanced budget has really appealed to these voters who may see Norm Coleman as a conventional Washington politician.
“The initial scenario was that the anti-incumbent voter would split between Franken and Barkley,” Mr. Jacobs added. “But what we are seeing more recently is that Dean Barkley is drawing support from Republicans. That suggests that the ability of Coleman to lock down his own base has been difficult.”
Mr. Coleman’s spokesman, Luke Friedrich, said the campaign expects a close race and feels good about where it is thus far in the contest. Despite recent polls, he says Mr. Barkley is likely to cause more problems for Mr. Franken.
“I think there are a lot of questions to answer about Al Franken’s temperament, his ability to work with people he disagrees with, his tax records and lack of experience,” Mr. Friedrich said. “Ultimately, Norm Coleman is the candidate who has the ability to deliver on issues that are the most important to Minnesotans.”
Mr. Franken’s campaign, which has hit Mr. Coleman hard on what it says have been ethical lapses and has connected him to policies of the Bush administration, said it still believes the election is a two-man contest, even with Mr. Barkley’s mounting support.
“It’s clear that there is a growing consensus for change in Minnesota, as evidenced by Norm Coleman’s decline in the polls. Dean Barkley is a serious candidate, but we ultimately expect this race to become a choice between Norm Coleman’s more-of-the-same approach and Al Franken’s bold ideas to help the middle class,” said Mr. Franken’s spokeswoman, Colleen Murray.
“This is going to be an exciting race, and it’s sure to come right down to the wire. We are going to spend the next 46 days pointing out the stark differences between Norm Coleman’s support of George Bush’s failed policies and Al Franken’s plans for change.”
Mr. Barkley’s spokesman, Christopher Truscott, said his candidate got into the race after Mr. Ventura, his longtime friend and mentor, decided not to run. Mr. Barkley, who ran Kinky Friedman’s quixotic independent campaign for Texas governor in 2006, wanted to give Minnesota voters a third-party choice.
“We’re viable because people are shopping around. That’s a direct result of Franken and Coleman not closing the deal,” Mr. Truscott said of Mr. Barkley’s high poll numbers, which signal Minnesotans’ receptiveness to individuals, rather than party loyalty. “Their ads, which are like watching a schoolyard fight, have been highly effective. Both of their negatives are going way up, and both teams deserve credit for taking each other down.”
Mr. Truscott said Mr. Barkley, who served as Mr. Ventura’s director of strategic and long-range planning, is outpacing the former governor, who was polling about 10 percent in September 1998 before he went on to surprise victory as a Reform Party candidate in November of that year. “All of the variables are lining up nicely, and people are giving us a good look.”