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Minnesotans chortle and chafe over Jesse

He's had to 'clarify' many of his statements and he's upset a state

A few hours after the massacre at Littleton, Colo., the ex-wrestler and swashbuckling film warrior, Jesse Ventura, made one of his first forays into an American social crisis in his new incarnation as governor of Minnesota. He offered a blueprint for avoiding mass murder at future Littletons.

Mr. Ventura's solution amounted to a pitch for more guns on the street. The Littleton shootings, the governor of Minnesota said then, strengthened the argument that more people in America should be carrying concealed guns to protect themselves.

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Most voters sighed in resignation.

Jesse again.

He later "clarified" his views on guns and schools, but he nonetheless left some Minnesotans railing at his sometimes comical, sometimes infuriating urges to take serious public issues and swab them with the paint of whimsy. The governor's jarring public blunders have practically created a new ex-officio agency in the Ventura regime at the State Capitol - a ministry to grind out apologies for Jesse's bursts of spontaneous wisdom.

Yet voters are hardly ready to demand impeachment for the man they promoted to Jesse The Mind instead of Jesse The Body, his stage handle as a wrestler.

His popularity rating, an improbable 72 percent just six weeks ago, was down to 62 percent, no precipitous drop. A 62 percent approval rating is still hot stuff for any politician. Saints and Nobel Prize winners have have received less. In Minnesota, there still is an overlay of public tolerance of gubernatorial gaffes, a willingness to make excuses for The Mind on grounds that he never claimed to be a diplomat, which gives him a freshness and an against-the-grain charm.

Public forgiveness may be wearing thin. Ventura's statement in the wake of Littleton was followed by his predictable statement of regret. He didn't mean people ought to be toting guns on a school campus, he said, and he regretted mixing the Littleton shootings with his arguments in favor of conceal-and-carry gun laws.

Nonetheless, the letters column of Minnesota newspapers and the talk shows were pumped with incensed commentaries. Ventura's office of damage control already had been laboring at forced draft.

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On his triumphant tour of the East and the national TV shows after his election, Jesse characterized the street system of St. Paul, the capital city of Minnesota, as something that might have been designed by a drunken Irishman. St. Paul is populated by tens of thousands of Irishmen. A lot of them sighed and bore no grudge. Some felt savaged by this clumsy attempt at racial humor. Jesse issued an apology when he felt the heat. But he chided the critics for lacking a sense of humor.

Still, a 62 percent rating means that Ventura commands widespread fondness (and forgiveness) among Minnesota folk. To most, he is a big and likeable stage character with a swagger, a shaved head, and a show-biz charisma despite his foggy vocal cords.

He's also a sure-enough international celebrity who brings both dash and suspense to the dreary business of politics. To most of them, it's all right for Jesse to insist on being Jesse. This means that he came to his inaugural wearing buckskin and feathered boas, proposed that Minnesota put his wife on the state payroll because she spends time on the state's business, and advised the University of Minnesota to build an athletic system where the athletes just play - they shouldn't have to pass tests.

Yet he is learning to work in the conventional world of politics. This week, Minnesotans awakened to news that a budget-and-tax agreement would yield the largest permanent tax cut in state history and the biggest increase in per-pupil spending in a decade. Lo and behold, Jesse is getting much of the credit, for putting his smooth head together with lawmakers from both parties to broker the deal.

While The Mind's impact on state government has not been seismic, he has a strong and perceptive staff of advisers who steer him away from any blockbuster reformist schemes. He is no special crusader to reduce government to bare bones, besides which some of the scholars of state government like several of his ideas: to get Minneapolis and St. Paul back into light rail, to protect the public from intimidating sports promoters who want citizens to build the promoters' stadiums, and more.

But two-thirds of the voters went for somebody else in the three-way race in November, and some of those find Ventura a free-falling embarrassment. One is Garrison Keillor, the nerdy but popular architect of public radio's mythical Lake Wobegon. In Wobegon, Mr. Keillor invented a society of Minnesotans who are polite, plodding, slightly above average, and somewhat gullible. But Jesse the swashbuckler has built a new claque of Minnesota thousands who seem noisy, somewhat reckless, somewhat chaotic. Keillor response: acid-dipped harpoons.

Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., is more amused than alarmed by the The Mind's adventure into politics. "What we're seeing is basically how Jesse made his name. He's a spectacle. He's probably going to keep on being a spectacle.... He's still popular because there is this ethos about him. 'He's one of us,' people will say."

But Schier adds: "I do think there's trouble ahead for him. He keeps making these embarrassing statements, and it gets into a drip, drip, drip sort of thing that will probably erode his popularity. He seems to work hard at being governor. The trouble is, he has more opinions than facts. Being Jesse may not work over the long run."

But it does add to the suspense in Ventura's office of damage control.

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