Former Gov. Jesse Ventura on Monday burst the trial balloon he has been inflating for months, telling a national TV audience that he won't join Sen. Norm Coleman and DFL candidate Al Franken in a campaign that had promised to become the most-watched Senate race in the country.
Although his appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" had all the trappings of an incipient campaign, Ventura squelched weeks of hinting that he was planning to enter the arena against Coleman, whose pro-Iraq war record he despises, and Franken, whom he has characterized as an opportunist for returning to Minnesota after years away to run for office.
But King had to drag it out of him first.
"I will tell you now, I am not going to run -- at this moment," Ventura said, after waxing for several minutes on his strong standing in recent polls, media attacks on his children, and the double standard he said third-party candidates face.
Late Monday, Dean Barkley said he might enter the race today.
"I certainly am considering it," he said. Ventura appointed Barkley to fill out the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's unfinished term in 2002.
The candidate filing period ends at 5 p.m. today.
Ventura slyly left open the possibility of running if God spoke to him before then -- one of several comments he made suggesting that religion has an undue influence in politics.
The reason he isn't going to run, he said, is the media. His daughter doesn't want the attention his candidacy would focus on her, he said, and he didn't relish having his motives unfairly attacked and second-guessed.
"I was close to doing it," he told King. "One part of me wanted to very badly. But when I spoke to my daughter and ... she feared what would happen to her that happened to her brother, that put me over the top.
"I thought, I will not put my family under that type of position again."
News reports that Tyrel Ventura, then 22, had used the governor's residence in St. Paul as a party pad were said to be a major reason why Ventura chose not to seek reelection as governor in 2002. Ventura said Monday night that his son now refuses to live in Minnesota.
What the polls say
Judging from a pair of polls released hours before Ventura's announcement, his decision must be considered good news for Franken, whose chances seem to improve in a two-way race.
A SurveyUSA/KSTP-TV poll, which Ventura cited to King as proof he would have mounted a strong race, showed the former governor trailing Coleman but virtually tied with Franken, feeding speculation that he would hurt the Democrat more than the Republican in the race.
The poll showed Coleman at 43 percent, Franken at 27 percent and Ventura at 26 percent. More telling, Ventura led with independents and snatched away 28 percent of Democrats.
Another poll released Monday, a Rasmussen Reports survey conducted last week, showed Franken with a narrow lead over Coleman, 44 to 42 percent -- the first lead Franken has registered in a poll in several months. But in a three-way race, Coleman moved two points ahead of Franken, 36 to 34 percent, with Ventura capturing 22 percent.
Earlier Monday, Coleman filed for office surrounded by supporters and family members -- including his 18-year-old daughter Sarah, registering to vote for the first time.
At that time, he declined to say how Ventura's candidacy might affect the contest between Franken and him.
"There's some polls that say [Ventura] splits the anti [Coleman] vote, he splits the angry vote. If that's the case, it's to my benefit," Coleman said. "I do better with folks who are optimistic, with folks who are looking for a positive vision, and I gotta believe that's what folks are looking for. But I haven't done that analysis."
Ventura told King Monday that he felt he would have had a good shot at beating Coleman, whom he defeated along with Hubert Humphrey III in the three-way race for governor in 1998.
He was sharply critical of Coleman, whom he called "a chicken hawk" for avoiding service in Vietnam when he was a student but voting to keep soldiers in Iraq as a senator.
And he expressed astonishment that Franken isn't ahead of Coleman in the polls.
"I think the Democrats in this particular race in Minnesota are in some serious trouble, Larry," he said.
He may not even vote
Not only will he not endorse Coleman or Franken, he said, he may not even vote -- for president or senator. "I can vote against someone, but I have no one to vote for," he said.
A onetime Navy SEAL and self-described "warrior," ex-motorcycle gang member, Ventura made himself a household name in the 1980s as a pro wrestler. When he left that arena, he made an improbable turn to politics.
Exercised over a property dispute in his home city of Brooklyn Park, Ventura entered the race and won. The mayoral stint gave credibility to what seemed like a long-shot bid for governor in 1998 against Coleman, then mayor of St. Paul, and Humphrey, a scion of the DFL Party and state attorney general. Voters found his blunt, colorful style a refreshing alternative to the usual vanilla politician palette.
Some still see him that way, and will miss him in this race.
"Jesse's been straightforward," said George Burke, a retired business administrator from Minnetonka. "I'm a Democrat. I decided some time ago that I didn't care for Coleman and I just don't like Franken.
"Jesse tried to do a lot of good things. He does some goofy things too. But when he was governor, he treated people fairly."