Just as he enjoys front-runner status in the DFL primary election field, Hubert Humphrey III looks like the strongest gubernatorial candidate the party can put up in the general election, according to the latest Star Tribune/KMSP-TV Minnesota Poll.
But the hypothetical three-way race featuring Humphrey, Republican Norm Coleman and the Reform Party's Jesse Ventura has tightened considerably since a previous poll in June. Humphrey's 10-percentage point lead over Coleman in that poll has shrunk to just 4 points in late July -- 39 to 35 percent. That may be a dead heat because of the poll's margin of sampling error.
The general election is three months away, and many voters have not even analyzed the field for the primary election, let alone turned their attention to the general election. So those poll results are likely to continue to change during the coming months. But the poll suggests that Coleman, the St. Paul mayor, may be a formidable candidate no matter who the DFL opponent is.
Indeed, the poll indicates that if Humphrey, the state attorney general, isn't the DFL nominee, Coleman may be designated the front-runner in the general election. As in the earlier poll, he comes out on top in the three-way matchups featuring Ventura and each of the other leading DFLers. His margin ranges from an 8-point lead over Ted Mondale, a former state senator from St. Louis Park, to a 25-point lead over state Sen. Doug Johnson of Tower.
Coleman appears to be benefiting from his image as a dynamic mayor and from the Republican Party's unity.
Leann Horak, a 39-year-old laborer from Winthrop and one of the poll respondents, said she has no allegiance to any party, but is impressed with the Republicans. All of the major Republican gubernatorial candidates pledged to support the party's endorsed candidate, she noted, and only two political unknowns are challenging Coleman in the primary.
"I'm so tired of the mudslinging," Horak said, expressing gratitude that the all-for-one agreement among Republicans spared voters from a potentially nasty primary election battle.
Horak also praised Coleman's character and his record as mayor. She views him as genuine, an advocate for regular folks and a leader. "I think he's brought St. Paul together," she said.
Coleman's campaign manager, Chris Georgacas, said the gap between Humphrey and Coleman has narrowed because in the past six weeks Coleman has turned from courting Republican convention delegates to reaching out to the general electorate.
Gerald Stuhr, a poll respondent from Annandale, said he likes several of the gubernatorial candidates, including Coleman, but he's backing Humphrey.
Stuhr cited Humphrey's broad statewide experience, his consumer protection work and the "intestinal fortitude" he demonstrated in pursuing the state's lawsuit against tobacco companies.
"I have confidence in him," said Stuhr, 64, a retired technical college president.
Humphrey's press secretary, Tammy Lee, said Humphrey's lead has decreased because Coleman is "in the honeymoon period with the voters." Once they begin to examine Coleman's record and what he advocates, his support will start slipping, Lee said.
The poll found that Ventura continues to demonstrate an unusual level of strength for a third-party candidate. In the hypothetical general-election matchups, no matter who the DFL candidate is, Ventura receives double-digit support, ranging from 11 percent (when Humphrey is the DFLer) to 15 percent (when Johnson is the DFLer).
The conventional wisdom is that Ventura, a former Brooklyn Park mayor who has been a pro wrestler, a Navy SEAL, a sports radio talk-show host and all-around he-man, will be more attractive to conservative Republicans than to liberal DFLers. Thus, he would take more votes from Coleman than from the DFLer.
But that remains to be seen, especially since Ventura's positions fall on both sides of the traditional two-party divide. For example, he supports abortion rights, but opposes stricter gun-control measures. In addition, Ventura has said he is counting on turning out disaffected voters who wouldn't vote for Coleman or the DFL candidate.