Feet up on a table in the back room of his threadbare campaign office, Dean Barkley cradled a phone under his ear and asked people for money. Again and again.

"This is all I'm doing all my waking hours these days -- raising money, using up all of my self-respect," he said during a break.

"But I'm not in this to be a 5 percent candidate."

Barkley is doing better than that. The Independence Party candidate for U.S. Senate drew support from 18 percent of likely voters in the most recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll -- making him a force that matters in the Senate race and eliciting the sincerest form of flattery from his opponents. They've criticized him in debates and in at least one television ad.

Returning to his fundraising, Barkley brightened up his mood and gave a double thumbs up. "Hey, I just got Jesse to contribute -- 500 bucks, no less."

A lot about Barkley shows through in those few moments. He is a private man who keeps thrusting himself into a public role; a wise-cracking political skeptic who has struggled with depression; a self-deprecating regular guy in an arena where most combatants take themselves altogether seriously.

And, as always, close nearby, looms the presence of Jesse Ventura, the man Barkley helped vault into the governor's office -- and who, in turn, immeasurably enriched Barkley's credentials.

It was Ventura's drawn-out decision last summer not to run for Senate himself that inspired Barkley, 58, to make his third bid for the office. He is attracting more support than ever this time as an alternative to both Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, who together have pinned Minnesotans down in a crossfire of negative advertising for much of the year.

"I think you've got to call me a viable alternative to Norm and Al. How long I stay viable, I don't know."

Bill Hillsman, the Minneapolis ad man who made his name helping both Ventura and the late Paul Wellstone, has known Barkley for more than a decade.

"He's got a basic likability that you don't see much anymore in this industry," said Hillsman, who's handling Barkley's ads. "And raw ambition really isn't part of his character, which is odd in someone who runs for office."

Deficit crusader

Born in Minneapolis, Barkley grew up in Annandale, a Wright County town that has since become a Twin Cities exurb. Both a jock and musician in high school, he earned his bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Minnesota, dabbling around the periphery of politics along the way.

Starting out as a Democrat, Barkley drifted toward the third-party movement, backing independent presidential candidate John Anderson in 1980.

But busy with his law practice, his marriage and raising a son, Garrett, now 22, and a daughter, Brooke, 19, Barkley pulled back from politics, only to be lured back in 1992, by the offbeat independent presidential bid of Texas billionaire Ross Perot.

Perot's central message about the threat budget deficits posed for America's future appealed deeply to Barkley, prompting him to run unsuccessfully as an independent in Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District. The anti-deficit message also carried him through his two losing Senate campaigns.

Those Senate runs, in retrospect, had an outsized impact on Minnesota political events, and Barkley's future.

Barkley won enough votes in his 1994 and 1996 Senate races to give his party official standing as a "major party" in Minnesota. Without that seemingly obscure prize, which brought automatic ballot access and public campaign financing, Ventura's election would likely never have happened.

And without Ventura's rise, Barkley himself almost certainly would have faded from the scene by now.

To this day, abhorrence of the deficit remains the centerpiece of Barkley's platform -- and the fire in his belly.

"We all ought to be ashamed of ourselves," he says. "We're the first generation to turn over a country to our kids that's in worse shape than we found it in."

A eureka moment

There is in Barkley more than a little of the jack-of-all-trades. At various times before and in between political forays, he has run his family's furniture store, operated a car wash, practiced law, lobbied the Legislature and driven a Metro Mobility bus.

It was during the 1996 Senate race that Barkley had a eureka moment that would indirectly lead to the zenith of his varied career.

Campaigning alongside Ventura, a former pro wrestler who had become a stalwart of the IP, Barkley noted the star-struck reaction of people along the parade route and decided the wrong guy was running.

Two years later, Ventura was elected governor and soon appointed Barkley, a top aide in his campaign, to head up the state planning department. In the waning days of the administration, Ventura appointed Barkley to serve out the final weeks of Wellstone's Senate term after Wellstone died in a plane crash.

Barkley makes the most of his brief Senate stint and has leaned heavily on that résumé line, going so far as to call himself "Senator" on his campaign website. And Ventura has continued to plump for his old friend, calling him "the most effective" U.S. senator in state history, measured "minute by minute."

In the few weeks that he was in the Senate, Barkley cast the tie-breaking vote to create the Department of Homeland Security, in exchange for winning a waiver from the Bush administration for Minnesota's welfare program. He also helped secure $10 million in federal money to expand a community center in St. Paul as a memorial to Wellstone.

Out of the shadows

Barkley's journey from his high point to a personal low was speedy. After leaving the Senate, he said, he returned to Minnesota, "having gotten a little too full of myself. ... Look, I'm imperfect."

Needing a job, he turned to lobbying for a tobacco company.

"I needed a job. Do you think if I thought I was going to run for office in a state like Minnesota, I'd lobby for a tobacco company?" he said.

Sen. John Marty, a DFLer, criticized Barkley at the time for parlaying his Senate service into a lobbying gig. "Dean always spent a lot of his time fighting against the special culture of lobbying," Marty said. "So I thought it was uncharacteristic of him to show up as a lobbyist."

Meanwhile, Barkley's marriage was crumbling, he'd begun drinking heavily and, without completely realizing it, he was spiraling into depression, he said.

"It was a tough couple of years, but I'm not going to try to hide that part of my life," he said. "I had some tough times, and I fought through them and beat it."

A breakthrough, of sorts, came in the form of a job offer to manage the gubernatorial campaign of yet another quirky, plain-spoken candidate -- Kinky Friedman, a satirist/musician who was mounting a Ventura-like (but unsuccessful) campaign in Texas in 2006 .

"As soon as I got down to Texas, it gave me space," Barkley said. "I began to figure out these demons I hadn't been able to deal with -- my marriage, my inability years ago to please my dad -- and after a couple of weeks I began to feel great."

Now divorced for several years, Barkley said his repeated forays into politics are at least partly responsible for the breakup. "I didn't blame her," he said. "She was the rock, she kept the family together, made the income that gave me the ability to do what I did. I appreciate that she put up with as much as she did. I can't undo that."

Barkley's ex-wife, Susan, said the two remain on friendly terms.

Politics, she said, "became a passion for him in the early '90s. I'd never seen it before. The first time he ran, it was kind of exciting. The second time, it was, like, O ... K. And the third time, I said this is enough."

She said she plans to vote for her ex on Nov. 4.

"He'd be an excellent senator," she said. "He's really smart -- he gets it."

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184