Tom Horner's Independence Party campaign for governor has been riding high in recent weeks as more Minnesotans learn about him through a series of gubernatorial debates.
More than a dozen forums have been convened since the August primary, and they have put Horner on even ground with Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer and Democratic nominee Mark Dayton. On stage, Horner rarely misses an opportunity to cast his opponents as bickering partisans.
Recent polls show Horner with support from 18 percent of registered voters. That's a lot less than Emmer and Dayton have, but at least according to the polls, Horner is trending upward.
At an appearance in Excelsior, Horner began by introducing the audience to the Republican and Democratic staffers who follow him with video cameras. The so-called "trackers," Horner happily explained, are proof the big guys are taking him seriously.
During his speech Horner stuck to his usual sales pitch: a bipartisan, common-sense alternative to Dayton and Emmer.
Afterword, Horner, still excited about former Republican Governor Arne Carlson's recent endorsement, spoke with increased confidence about his campaign.
"I feel like I have a strong wind at my back," he said. "It's been a terrific couple of weeks."
Despite Horner's optimism, it's been 12 years since Minnesotans elected a third-party governor.
Prior to "shocking the world" in 1998, Jesse Ventura had been running a shoe-string campaign with considerably less money than Horner. Ventura had no TV spots until just a couple of weeks before the election.
According to some polls, Horner has nearly twice the support Ventura had at this stage in the election contest.
Horner's campaign is a lot different than Ventura's was and not just because Horner is far from the charismatic, shoot-from-the hip showman and political outsider that Ventura was. Horner was a top staffer for former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger in the 1980's and then a co-owner of a public relations firm. He's more of a policy wonk than a populist crowd-pleaser.
Horner is also selling a less-popular message than Ventura was. When Ventura ran for governor, the state treasury was overflowing and he was calling for tax refunds. With a $5.8 billion state budget shortfall looming, Horner is proposing tax increases.
Horner supports using some public money to build a new Viking's stadium. Ventura was dead set against replacing the Metrodome for the Twins.
Republican leaders accuse Horner of being a tax-and-spend liberal like Dayton; they recently launched a website called liberaltomhorner.com.
The Democratic side refers to Horner as just another Republican. Democrats accuse Horner of favoring special interests and big business over ordinary Minnesotans.
During the campaign, both Emmer and Dayton have poked at Horner's background as a public relations consultant with a long list of former clients.
At a more recent debate Emmer noted Horner's behind-the-scenes public policy background.
"I know that your job has been representing people, influencing government," Emmer told Horner. "You've worked on rail projects, you've worked for hospitals, influencing government."
Dayton and Emmer are likely to put more pressure on Horner about his public relations past.
The question is whether Horner can maintain his momentum under such pressure, University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said. If Horner stalls, Jacobs said, supporters now flocking to him could just as soon abandon him.
"Some of the moderate Republicans worry that the might be electing a Mark Dayton, which would be in their view a disaster," Jacobs said. "The Democratic or kind of center-left independent voter ... would be worried that voting for Horner might bring them a very conservative Tom Emmer."
As pleased as Horner is that the Democratic and Republican establishment are taking him seriously, Jacobs said Horner's competitors have yet to aggressively go after him. Jacobs said if Horner continues to make progress, the other two sides will step up their attacks.
"Mark Dayton has made no secret of the fact that he plans to raise real questions about Tom Horner as a lobbyist for special interests," Jacobs said. "That could be a pretty painful body blow to him and again help to stop his momentum and maybe even send him backward."
Horner, who has steadfastly refused to release his list of former clients, maintains his past clients are not an issue because he sold his stake in his public relations.
"I have no conflicts because I have no clients," he said.
Horner won't say how much money his campaign has, only that his fundraising has picked up. Through the end of the last reporting period in mid-July Horner had raised almost $200,000. He also received nearly $350,000 in state public financing and political check-off money.
Horner maintains he will need as much as $2 million to wage a successful campaign.