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A line three and four people deep started forming Thursday afternoon almost a block from Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner's booth, across Nelson Street from the DNR building at the Minnesota State Fair.
For a fleeting moment, it brought to mind 1998, and the persistent row of fairgoers at then-candidate Jesse Ventura's booth. That line was my cue to start watching Ventura more closely.
But this was no line of autograph seekers, waiting for a brief audience with a politician. It was the queue for free bags being distributed at 2:30 p.m. at the KARE barn next door to Horner's booth.
In this economy, free stuff evidently has a lot more appeal than a chance to shake a gubernatorial candidate's hand.
The line at the Horner booth was actually down to just two people, newlyweds Ray Guest and Carrie Carlson-Guest. They were signing up as campaign volunteers, in part on the strength of Carlson-Guest's respect for her old boss. She used to work for Himle Horner Inc., the public relations firm Horner founded.
The groom is a native Oklahoman -- a disabled veteran and a construction industry employee who usually votes Republican. The bride usually votes for DFLers.
"Horner is the only candidate we've been able to agree on," Guest said.
It's much the same for Jim and Lorraine Perreault of Lakeville, whom I met Monday. Jim voted for DFLer Mike Hatch in 2006; Lorraine for GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. This time they're both interested in Horner, they said.
"Dayton's been around too long," Lorraine said of DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton. "And [Republican Tom] Emmer won't tell us what he'll do about the budget deficit. At least Horner lets us know what he wants to do."
Minimizing election-year discord in politically mixed marriages may not be what Horner has in mind when he says he can bring differing Minnesotans together.
But a candidate without much of a party base to stand on has to start somewhere. Maybe Horner -- a wonkish fellow whose message could use an emotional tweak -- could bill himself as the marital harmony candidate.
The results of the latest MPR-Humphrey Institute poll, released last week, suggest that the IP candidate could use an attention-getting message. It put him at a meager 13 percent support. It also showed Dayton and Emmer deadlocked, with 34 percent apiece. (The poll carries a margin of error of 5.3 percentage points, so "running a close race" is a more apt description of their contest.)
But polls don't provide the state politics subtext and context that one can discern at the fair (or so I've always told my editors when begging leave to head to the fairgrounds during working hours).
Three times -- at 10:15 a.m. Monday, 10:50 a.m. Tuesday and 1 p.m. Thursday -- I trooped to Dayton's table at the DFL pavilion and Emmer's standalone booth on Underwood Street, hoping to eavesdrop on a candidate's conversations with fairgoers. All three times, I was disappointed. No Dayton, no Emmer.
All three times, either Horner or his running mate, Jim Mulder, were holding forth on Nelson Street. All three times, other members of the Horner and/or Mulder families were also on hand, beckoning to passersby to meet the candidates.
The IP team seemed to be behaving like Avis in the old car rental commercial. They're behind, so they're trying harder.
Horner told me fairgoers frequently volunteered to him their dissatisfaction with one or both of the big-party candidates. Mulder added his sense that the people he'd met were about evenly split between usually-DFLers and usually-Republicans.
I stayed at the booth long enough to conduct my own sloppy survey of people expressing interest in the IP team. DFLers won't like the results: 14 voted for DFLer Mike Hatch for governor in 2006; four for Pawlenty; one for the IP's Peter Hutchinson.
Horner might not like what I heard, either. Not many of those who stopped to chat with Horner or Mulder have decided to vote for him. Greg and Coralyn Koschinska of Schroeder, both erstwhile Republicans, were typical. They're listening closely to the candidates and watching the polls, they said on Tuesday.
"I don't want to waste my vote," said Greg, who added that "if Emmer wins, he'd be a disaster for this state."
Just then, a blue-T-shirted group appeared. The band of several dozen middle-aged people, all unemployed professionals, toted their "resumes on a stick" to call attention to their struggles to find work. They're part of a jobless support group from Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan that draws 60 to 80 people per week and has included a total of 546 people since December 2008, said organizer Catherine Byers Breet. A few of them stopped to tell Horner and Mulder their stories, then trooped off -- seeming unsure of what they were looking for, or expecting to find.
Of all the things I saw and heard at the State Fair this year, that jobless mini-parade will stay with me longest.
Minnesota in 2010 isn't the same carefree place that took a flier on a wrestler/actor/radio talker for governor in 1998. Two bad economic years and no recovery in sight have left many voters disillusioned, discouraged and uncertain where to look for hope. The MPR-Humphrey Institute poll found 20 percent undecided about the governor's race. My fair-based hunch: That figure is understated.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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