The little Independence Party may have dwindled in numbers and clout since its Jesse Ventura heyday. But it remains a potentially significant force in this year's gubernatorial election. Voters in the Aug. 10 primary will do much to determine whether the IP's influence this year is benign, positive or pernicious.

Only one candidate in the five-way IP field is gubernatorial material. Tom Horner, a public-relations professional, businessman and longtime Republican activist, ought to easily secure the IP spot on the general-election ballot.

Horner, a former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, is well-known in state government circles and well-schooled in public policy and organizational leadership. He has mounted a genuine statewide campaign, and is offering thoughtful proposals to address a wide range of state problems.

In the full field of candidates for governor, DFLers and Republicans included, Horner may be the best-connected to the state's leading businesses, having been a paid adviser to a number of them. And in the entire field, he most convincingly describes how reform of both the state tax code and delivery of services could contribute to balancing the state budget.

Horner has an ally in that area in Jim Mulder, his policy-oriented running mate. Mulder recently stepped down after many years heading the Association of Minnesota Counties, where he led projects that produced a stream of innovative cost-saving ideas for improving government.

Despite those strengths, Horner and his backers dare not take the primary for granted. He has a voluble, ambitious challenger in Rob Hahn, a St. Paul-based magazine publisher and author who has written a soon-to-be-released book about a candidate named "Robbob" running for governor.

Nothing in Hahn's background suggests that he is prepared to govern this state. But he's telegenic, articulate and a quick study -- particularly of talking points that create an impression that he knows state government well. That impression fades upon questioning. He's also an aggressive debater -- extremely so on last week's MPR "Midmorning" program. News that his ex-wife obtained a protection order against him last year reinforces doubts about his suitability for office.

Those doubts ought to deter the mischief that has been hinted to be afoot -- a concerted effort among Republican activists to cast ballots for Hahn on Aug. 10, in order to deny nomination to the more formidable Horner. The civic consciences of Republican leaders ought to be robust enough to reject such gamesmanship. Still, the possibility that some may fall into temptation should propel Horner backers to the polls on Aug. 10.

Also on the IP ballot are perennial candidates Phil Ratte and Rahn Workcuff and retired businessman John Uldrich, an entrepreneurial thinker whose better-known son Jack is IP state chair and, notably, a Horner backer.

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One reason Republicans might be inclined to stray into the IP primary is that the contest on their own primary ballot is not competitive. GOP endorsee Tom Emmer faces only token opposition from perennials Ole Savior and Leslie Davis, and a principled but politically ineffectual challenge from Bob Carney Jr. The GOP primary warrants no recommendation from this newspaper.

Carney, a Minneapolis journalist, offers moderate Republicans who have not followed Horner out of the party an option on the primary ballot. He's a critic of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's 2009 unallotment, which he considers an unconstitutional executive-branch power grab. His realistic budget plan -- more detailed than any yet seen from Emmer -- includes a $3 billion tax increase. The fact that Carney has been unable to mount even the semblance of a campaign reveals how near to extinction the once-dominant moderate faction of Minnesota's Republican Party has become.