WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2010 -- In an election year dominated by polarized politics, candidates staking out the middle ground haven't gained much momentum with voters. But in Minnesota, an independent candidate for governor is bucking the trend.
Tom Horner, a 60-year-old public relations executive who's never held office, has overcome virtual obscurity among voters in recent weeks and surged in the polls, to position himself as a viable third-party contender.
Although Horner trails Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer by double digits, his support has climbed steadily to around 17 percent of likely voters, causing many observers to wonder whether he can follow in the footsteps of Jesse Ventura.
Twelve years ago Venutra, the pro-wrestler-turned Reform Party candidate for governor, mounted a come-from-behind victory over Republican Norm Coleman to win the state's top job – a feat that has gone unmatched by any third-party candidate elsewhere in the nation, since Ventura left office in 2003.
Horner is in a similar position in the polls as Ventura was in early October 1998. And aides say the steady flow of campaign donations and endorsements from prominent state moderates are signs his candidacy is on the rise.
Former two-term Gov. Arne Carlson and three-term Sen. Dave Durenberger, both Republican moderates, have endorsed Horner. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, the state's largest newspaper, has also given him glowing reviews, calling him a "serious contender" who "deserves full consideration."
"Horner's opportunity and challenge is that a quarter of the electorate knows who he is now, but they have yet to make up their minds," said Horner campaign spokesman Matt Lewis. "We know it's not about his policies. Our conversations haven't been about who people think would be the best governor. The conversations are always about, can you win?"
Meanwhile, polls show large numbers of Minnesota voters remain undecided about their choice for governor, and neither Dayton nor Emmer has broken out with a clear majority. The situation reflects moderate voters' relative distaste for their choices, experts say.
"I don't think you'll find a starker choice anywhere in the U.S.," said Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn.
Dayton, who leads in most polls over Emmer and Horner, has proposed raising state income tax rates to levels already among the highest in the country, while Emmer wants to cut taxes and shrink state government in the face of an historic $5.8 billion budget deficit.
Horner is playing to the middle with a mix of cuts to state spending, and new sales taxes, to close the budget gap. He also favors new infrastructure projects to create jobs and using state gambling revenues to help fund a new Minnesota Vikings football stadium.
"In Minnesota, you win elections by running to the middle," Horner recently told the Associated Press. "In this race, you have a Democrat and a Republican who are trying to win without doing that, who represent the extreme ends of their parties. There's a big opening left for us to walk right into."
But experts say parallels between Horner and Ventura's campaigns don't extend far beyond the candidates' moderate policy positions or their early pre-election poll numbers.
Unlike Ventura, Horner has a history in party politics as a Republican operative. He has struggled to develop the appeal among younger and disenfranchised voters that proved crucial to the Ventura campaign.
"There's no reason to assume Ventura's trajectory is a normal one for independents in Minnesota," said Schier.
Independent candidates in the last two gubernatorial elections failed to gain traction with voters. In 2006, Peter Hutchinson barely won 6 percent against Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democrat Mike Hatch. And in 2002, Tim Penny, who made a strong showing early in the race against Pawlenty and Democrat Roger Moe, collapsed at the end, only snagging 16 percent of the vote.
"The only precedent is there's no precedent," said Horner spokesman Lewis. The Horner campaign believes they will convince voters that they are a viable alternative to Dayton and Emmer if they can reach the mid-20s in the polls by election day.
That will be no small feat in a state where large numbers of voters remain undecided and many are nervous about throwing away their vote to a third party candidate, experts say.
Skeptics of Horner's chances say it will be more interesting to see from which opponent he draws more votes.
Both Dayton and Emmer have been attacking Horner in recent weeks, and so far there is no clear indication of who his campaign is hurting more. Dayton leads with 38 percent to Emmer's 27 percent, according to the most recent Minnesota Public Radio-Humphrey Institute poll.
Minnesota is one of two states where the independent candidate for governor has been surging in the polls this year. Former Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee is building momentum to become his state's first independent governor.
Independents Tim Cahill of Massachusetts and former Democrat Eliot Cutler of Maine are also making gubernatorial bids, but at this point, are also-rans.