ST. PAUL – For three years, Jesse Ventura has seemed a sort of Kevlar governor; flak that would have ruined traditional politicians had no impact on him.
Now, with a year left in office, the Independence Party maverick is showing signs of vulnerability.
A recent poll gave him his lowest approval numbers to date, his potential rivals are circling and an influential political newsletter flatly predicts he won't be re-elected if he runs.
The reasons for his troubles are ample:
— On Tuesday, the state learned it will face a nearly $2 billion dollar budget shortfall, a swing of $4 billion from a prediction last year. Ventura said he may have to raise taxes by expanding the sales tax base.
— In October, half the state's workers walked off the job for two weeks in a bid for better pay and health benefits.
— Both events followed a brawling summer budget battle that wasn't settled until the eve of a government shutdown.
But perhaps more than anything else, the governor has taken criticism for seeming unconcerned when owners of major league baseball put the Minnesota Twins in their sights as one of two teams targeted for elimination.
"I wasn't elected to govern major league baseball," he said on the day of the announcement. The day after, he left the state for California to shoot a bit part in a movie, explaining his decision this way: "I got a chance to meet Adam Sandler and Dana Carvey. Why not?"
The stance was not new for Ventura, who has consistently opposed using public money to build a stadium for the team. Yet it angered fans, and after one unseemly exchange with a radio show caller — Ventura interrupted the fan and took off his headset when the host told him to let the man speak — the newsletter Politics in Minnesota declared Ventura could forget about a second term.
He's since come around some on the Twins, taking to the airwaves and appearing before Congress to chastise the owners, and professing openness to stadium plans paid for with user fees and ticket taxes.
But it's all been a little too troublesome for many Minnesotans, who prefer their government, like the children in fabled Lake Wobegon, above average.
"The governor has nine lives," said House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who backs a Republican challenger. "I think he's used up eight of them."
Ventura hasn't said if he will run again, and says he won't until next spring, yet the new poll numbers suggest such an effort wouldn't be easy.
His approval rating fell to 53 percent in one poll published Thursday. In another statewide poll, 32 percent of people surveyed in November said they would be inclined to vote for him if he runs again. Even in a likely three-way race, it would be difficult to earn victory with that margin. Ventura won office in 1998 with 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
A sinking economy will make things even tougher, says University of Minnesota-Duluth political scientist Craig Grau, though he hesitates to predict much about Ventura.
"I don't think political science has anything it can help people with in a three-way race that includes Jesse," Grau said.
Regardless, Ventura himself seems to have a new spring in his step after a post-Sept. 11 funk in which he refused interviews and shrouded appearances in secrecy out of professed fears of terrorism.
He's back before the public, and even his icy relations with the press have warmed in a uniquely Ventura way. (At a Thanksgiving event, he entered and said to reporters: "Oh, look, a whole room full of turkeys.")
And he maintains that he doesn't give a whit about re-election.
"You can worry about the election when the legislative session's over," Ventura said in reaction to the bad budget news. "When that's over we can all harden and we can all start slicing each other's throats or whatever goes on. I don't know. I've never sought re-election before."
Nonetheless, potential opponents are moving swiftly to capitalize.
Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, one of the state's most prominent Democrats but someone who for decades has seemed content in the Legislature, now says he's seriously considering a run against Ventura. He's calling hearings to examine how big a part Ventura's tax cuts and rebates have played in the shortfall.
A Republican opponent, entrepreneur Brian Sullivan, has begun running critical campaign ads during Ventura's weekly radio show.
Supporters say Ventura's troubles, like others he's had, will pass.
Former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny, a Democrat with an independent streak who has been friendly with Ventura, said Minnesotans will judge the governor for what he does and not for what he says.
He notes that Minnesotans forgave Ventura after he disparaged organized religion in a Playboy interview, happily cashed the rebate checks that emerged from the tumultuous legislative session and didn't begrudge him his moonlighting as an announcer for the short-lived XFL football league.
"In the final analysis, he'll be judged based on his record of accomplishment and it is substantial," Penny said. "Lesser things come and go and they're just sort of a passing news story."