Dean Barkley, one of former Gov. Jesse Ventura's closest political associates, said Wednesday that he thinks Ventura will enter the U.S. Senate race as a third-party candidate next month.

But Barkley emphasized that no one knows what the former governor will wind up doing.

And he said Ventura probably won't make a decision until right before the deadline for filing for office -- 5 p.m. on July 15.

But Barkley said that recent polls -- which showed Ventura with the support of a quarter of Minnesota voters in a hypothetical run against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and DFLer Al Franken -- have reinforced their hunch that this could be a good year for a famous third-party candidate with office-holding experience.

In fact, both he and Ventura think the former governor would win, Barkley said.

"I think the public would like an alternative," he said. "The polls just show that [Coleman and Franken] have weaknesses that could be exploited by the right person."

No matter what Ventura does, that person won't be Barkley, who was appointed by Ventura to complete Paul Wellstone's term after the senator's death in 2002. Although he had said he would run if Ventura doesn't, Barkley was recently hired to run Metro Mobility transit and has ruled out joining the race.

As for Ventura, he's struggling between wanting to hang onto his comfortable lifestyle in Minnesota and Mexico, where he's become a surf hound, and his desire to shake up Congress and support U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Barkley said.

He added that Terry Ventura says she won't stand in her husband's way if he wants to run.

"Half of him wants to [run] and the other half says, 'Don't do it, you idiot,'" Barkley said. "He knows his way of life is going to have to change."

One of the recent polls that showed support for Ventura also found that 60 percent of respondents said he shouldn't run for the Senate. Barkley acknowledged that he has some negatives.

"But I think that would change after hearing what he's doing and why he's doing it, and getting reacquainted with his point of view," he said.

State GOP Chairman Ron Carey said that while Ventura shouldn't be underestimated, "the Jesse Ventura of 2008 is different from the Jesse Ventura of 1998 ... he has a track record now, and [Minnesotans are] not going to want to go back for a re-do."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455