ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A steaming-mad Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed a fellow independent to temporarily fill Sen. Paul Wellstone's seat Monday, while Walter Mondale went on the offensive against Republican Norm Coleman in the only debate of their compressed Senate campaign.
Ventura's choice of Dean Barkley, a major figure in Minnesota's third-party movement, leaves the balance of power in the Senate up in the air. The two major parties now have 49 members each, with two independents.
One of those independents, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, routinely votes with Democrats. Barkley said he is not sure which way he would lean.
"I can get along with moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans," he said. He later noted that Jeffords told him in a call, "Don't commit to anything." Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott also called in a bid to court the newest senator.
Length of service unclear
It is unclear how long Barkley will serve. An attorney general's opinion said the winner of the Senate election will replace Barkley once the winner is certified in mid-November. But Senate rules suggest Barkley's term will run into early January, until the new senators arrive.
It also remains unclear whether the Senate will hold a lame-duck session between Election Day and January.
For Ventura, the timing of his angry announcement was a bit of mischief: It came just as the Coleman-Mondale debate got under way. The governor said he was upset that his Independence Party's Senate candidate, Jim Moore, was excluded from the televised event. Moore has polled in the low single digits.
"Today, three very powerful institutions, the Republican Party, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Party, and the Minnesota media are conspiring to limit the hard-earned rights of ordinary citizens," Ventura said.
In the debate, Mondale -- the 74-year-old former vice president and senator who came out of political retirement after Wellstone was killed in a plane crash Oct. 25 -- questioned how independent a voice Coleman would be as a senator. The two also laid out different stances on issues such as abortion, prescription drug benefits and Social Security.
"Mondale came out swinging and showed himself ready and willing both for a fight and for public life, which is a lot of what people were wondering about," said Lilly Goren, political science professor at College of St. Catherine's in St. Paul.
Much of the first part of the debate focused on whether Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul who was picked for the race by President Bush, would be a puppet for the Bush administration.
'I can be independent'
Mondale called Coleman's campaign "the poster child for what is wrong in politics," citing its reliance on money from corporations and special interests.
"I can be independent," Mondale said. "I owe no one when I go to Washington."
Coleman said he disagreed with the White House on issues such as keeping Cuba cut off from trade with the United States and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
"If I win on Tuesday, the president is going to owe me big-time," Coleman said. "We walked through fire to get here."
Coleman also pointed out several times that federal taxes were raised when Mondale was vice president in the late 1970s.
Ventura's choice of Barkley to temporarily fill the seat angered Minnesota Democrats.
Shortly after Wellstone's death, Ventura said he preferred to appoint a Democrat to hold the seat since Wellstone was a Democrat. When a memorial service for Wellstone turned raucously partisan, though, Ventura stormed out and said he would consider appointing an independent.
"It's typical Jesse Ventura," state Democratic chairman Mike Erlandson said. "It is always all about Jesse. He decided to make a political rant when people wanted to focus on who is going to be their next U.S. senator."
Barkley, 52, was a Democrat before switching to Ross Perot's Reform Party. Barkley ran for the Senate in 1994 and got more than 5 percent of the vote, earning ballot status for the Reform Party in Minnesota. Ventura's Independence Party grew out of the Reform Party.