Larry and Debbie Sherman don't see themselves as particularly powerful. He puts in a grueling 12 hours a day, seven days a week at Blandin Paper Co. and the apartment units he manages as a fallback against a second layoff. She travels regularly across Minnesota and Michigan to manage sprawling property complexes.

But in this election, voters like the Shermans may hold the balance of political power in their tired, working-class hands. Unlike many of their partisan friends and neighbors, they're not Democrats and they're not Republicans.

They're Ticketsplitters -- a small but distinct breed that jumps party lines on a ballot as easily as a hungry deer jumps a fence, searching endlessly for candidates on any side that they can like and trust. They drive campaigns crazy and confound pundits' predictions with their stubborn refusal to fit into any neat political box.

And this year, in Minnesota, they may provide an all-important edge. If all the Minnesotans supporting Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama were also backing Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken, Franken would have a commanding lead.

On the other hand, if Franken's support didn't change, but Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman got all the votes heading toward GOP presidential standard-bearer John McCain, Coleman would be solidly ahead.

So far, neither of those things is happening. As a result, the closely fought three-way race for the Senate remains a tossup and it's partly the splitters' doing.

Larry Sherman says he's "100 percent sure" that he will vote for Barack Obama, one of the most liberal members of Congress, for president. But in the Senate race, he's going to choose U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican who is Obama's polar opposite on most issues.

"I just don't follow party lines," Sherman said. "I'm just voting for the best person for the job."

For folks like Sherman, that determination turns more on an innate feel for which candidate is sound, competent, trustworthy, than on any single position.

"I know all the rhetoric you hear on TV," Sherman said in disgust. "I'm trying to look at who they [candidates] really are, inside."

Debbie Sherman uses much the same barometer. "Who do you trust?" she said, on a rare Sunday night at home, preparing for another jam-packed week. "That's what it's all about. I jump back and forth all the time."

Bill Aufenthie, a retired postmaster in Rochester, is looking for a "fresh voice" and he's found it in Coleman's Democratic opponent, political newcomer Al Franken. But for president, Aufenthie is going with a candidate he says "is older than a goat" -- Republican Sen. John McCain, who's logged 26 years in Congress. Why?

"Obama's from Chicago and everybody knows Chicago's full of crooks," Aufenthie said. "That's why I'll split the ticket this time. It bothers me a little, because I want to see things get done. But I don't see another way."

Significant numbers

A recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll showed that 26 percent of voters who support Obama also say they would vote for a candidate of a different party in the U.S. Senate race. Most of them preferred the Independence Party's Dean Barkley, while the rest favored Republican Coleman.

Among voters backing Republican McCain, 20 percent said they would split their ticket and vote for either Barkley or Franken in the Senate race.

Steve Frank, chairman of the political science department at St. Cloud State University, said that splitters tend to be less partisan, have lower income and a greater tendency to skip an election now and then.

"They tend to be affected more by personality and last-minute events," Frank said. But they're not just undecided. "Undecideds are people waiting for some last bit of information," Frank said. "Ticketsplitters are different. They're fully capable of voting for candidates who have opposing political philosophies because of the way they perceive their personality and character."

The reasons can be as varied as the voters themselves.

"I'm done saying sorry for the way I'm voting," Christine Stimart volunteers. Stimart, 20, of Duluth, supports Franken "because there's something about his views on community that I like better." But as for Obama, Stimart says, pausing, "Well, I was raised Aryan and there's just no way I would ever vote for anybody who's not white. Most of the time I'm a Democrat, but not this time. Not for president."

Stimart acknowledges that her views offend some of her friends, "but there's others who feel the same way, I know."

Minnesota has a long history of ticket-splitting and a political personality that can be hard for an outsider to comprehend. How do you explain a state that within the span of a few years elected Sen. Rod Grams, a strict fiscal and social conservative; Sen. Mark Dayton, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and Gov. Jesse Ventura, a rough-edged, third-party maverick?

"I've split my ticket lots of times," said Tom DeMarais, 70, of Foley. "Sometimes it's not always people from one party who you think can do the job."

"People want balance in Minnesota," said Chris Tiedeman, a Republican operative who this time around is working for the constitutional amendment that would increase the sales tax to fund environmental issues and the arts. Ticket splitters, he said, sometimes instinctively shy away from straight-ticket votes that throw all the power to one party. In addition, he said, "In every election there are going to be candidates who buck any trend because they're better at connecting with voters."

Sometimes, nobody connects.

Colleen Sickeler, a licensed nurse who now stays home to care for her preschool-age grandchildren, ticks off her list of grievances with the current slate: "McCain is old ... I don't care for Obama's demeanor or his grandiose plans ... I could never vote for Al Franken."

Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley is "OK," she allowed, and his emphasis on the deficit appeals to her frugal nature. But would she go so far as to vote for him? "Hmm, I don't think so," she mused. "My husband voted for Ventura in 1998, so I voted Republican to cancel out his vote and I'll probably vote for Coleman this time."

Sickeler said she may also vote for McCain on Election Day, but she remains unsure.

"Obama still has a little time to change my mind," she said.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288