updated 7/22/2004 1:37:36 AM ET 2004-07-22T05:37:36

Minnesota’s governor, Tim Pawlenty knows a lot about Minnesota’s changing political landscape. Pawlenty, a Republican, won against a better-known Democrat in the state of iconic liberals which include Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale (who was beaten in a senate race in 2002 by a Republican). 

“Minnesota used to be just automatically lumped into the classic liberal category of states along with Massachusetts and Hawaii,” Pawlenty said.

Call it the Ventura factor. When flamboyant former wrestler Jesse Ventura ran for governor, new voters came into the process and stayed— even after he was gone.  It turns out that their allegiance didn’t stay with the third party he created, especially in what’s now known as the "Ventura Belt." 

After Route 5 from Democratic Minneapolis, you'll pass through the swing counties of the suburbs. In picturesque places like Waconia, church steeples rise over rows of American flags on Main street. It's a city where succesful Minnesotans are building big houses and bank accounts with little feeling of allegiance to the Democractic party of their parents. Republican Don Johnson has won three times as mayor of Waconia, and Ventura won by taking 56 percent of the vote there.

“Let’s remember, I was fiscally conservative  like a Republican, and I think that you’re seeing a trend in people believing in personal responsibility—that government can’t do everything for everyone,” Ventura said. 

So the Bush/Cheney 04 is mounting a formidable challenge.  The campaign is well ahead in organizing.  There were ten paid employees in a bustling office in St. Paul, committee chairmen in every county, and thousands of volunteers are manning phone banks statewide. 

As of my last visit, the Kerry campaign didn't expect to open its Minnesota office with a paid campaign organizer until at least the end of the month, which makes Bush supporters in the once Democratic stronghold cautiously optimistic.

“In 2000, the President lost Minnesota by about less that 2.5 percent,” Senator Norm Coleman (R) said.  “That was the first time in 50 years that the total vote for the Democratic candidate in Minnesota was less than the national percentage.”

John Kerry is not taking Minnesota for granted either. Unlike other Midwestern states where he assails the biggest Bush economic policies, the large agricultural base here is strong.  

Kerry will win in urban areas. St. Paul, for example, still has a thriving liberal base, where there’s increasing anti-war sentiment.

“I think ultimately people will be most concerned with Iraq and what’s going on there and the failure of the administration to be truthful,” Senator Mark Dayton said.

Chris Jansing has traveled all over Battleground America in the past couple of months to talk to undecided Americans in big cities and little towns, and to look at the grassroots efforts being conducted there. "Battleground America: Winning the White House" airs July 25, Sunday, 10 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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