"Look, we've got a sign and everything!" the newest U.S. senator says as he bounds past the "Dean Barkley, Minnesota" placard outside his temporary office. His desk is clear except for a Senate rule book and a small dictating machine that he's using to record impressions during this "business trip" to Washington.

He is a wisecracking rugby player with big red cheeks, who has strong opinions about welfare reform, campaign finance and homeland security. Citizens can't learn about Barkley's views on his Senate Web site, because he has no Senate Web site yet. And he might not before Minnesota's Sen.-elect Norm Coleman takes over in January, at which point Barkley will be back in Minnesota "looking for a job."

But being a senator is "a terrific re{acute}sume{acute}-builder," Barkley notes. And for this he can thank his pal Gov. Jesse Ventura, who picked the former car wash manager to complete the term of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), who died in a plane crash last month. It makes for a sweet Everyman's narrative, except that Barkley, 52, wields an inordinate level of influence for a drive-through senator. Indeed, as an independent in a Senate where 50 members vote in the Democratic caucus and 49 in the Republican, Barkley is attracting constant attention from, among others, President Bush, Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Minority Leader Trent Lott.

Barkley is weathering this power charm offensive from a bunkerlike office on the first floor of the Russell Building. The office consists of one room, four desks, four phones, four computers and little else, but Barkley seems perpetually dazzled. By everything.

"Oooh God, who wouldn't be excited?" Barkley says when asked if he's looking forward to meeting Bush in the Oval Office yesterday afternoon. He enjoys showing off the Senate pin on the lapel of his suit -- one of two suits he purchased at Men's Wearhouse last week after he learned Ventura was appointing him to the Senate.

"It's solid gold with two little diamonds," Barkley says of the pin. "It opens a lot of doors in this town. You even get seated quicker when you're in line for tables, I found out." Like last week, at a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. "Hey," Barkley calls out across his office, "what's the name of that restaurant where we tried to use the power of the Senate to get a table?" The Chart House, someone remembers.

"The first thing I told Dean when he got here is to have fun," says Lowell Weicker, the former Connecticut Republican governor and senator who is hosting Barkley at his home in Alexandria. Weicker, now an independent himself, met him through Barkley's longtime involvement in third-party politics. This is also how Barkley came to know Ventura, whose campaign for governor he chaired in 1998. Ventura made Barkley Minnesota's director of planning, a job he held until he came to Washington.

Beyond his jolly veneer, Dean Barkley is a man of achievement and sober purpose. Raised in Annandale, Minn., he's had a career that includes stints as a lawyer, real estate broker and corporate turnaround specialist. He's managed boat, furniture and convenience stores, as well as Mermaid Car Wash, which, Barkley is fond of saying, was rated the best in the Twin Cities.

A former Democratic activist, Barkley was inspired by Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign to become involved in third-party politics. He made quixotic runs for Congress and campaigned twice for the Senate before casting his political lot with Ventura, whom he persuaded to run for governor. "This is payback for you making me governor," Ventura told Barkley after naming him to the Senate.

Barkley wants people to know he is taking his job seriously. He intends to honor the memory of Wellstone and will do the best he can for the people of Minnesota. All of which is terrific -- if nowhere near as interesting as the mischief Barkley is fond of contemplating. "I had no idea about all the procedural stuff I could do to grind this place to a halt," he says, joking. Apparently.

On Sunday at the Army-Navy Country Club, Barkley and his friend Tom D'Amore made a friendly wager. If D'Amore won, Barkley would let him choose which party caucus Barkley would vote with. The men were tied after 17 holes.

"But D'Amore choked on the 18th," Barkley reports, "so I got to keep my power." And even if he lost, he was protected. "I had my fingers crossed when I made the bet," he says, and a nation exhales.

Again, Barkley is kidding. Sort of, maybe. He has one of those small and ever-present grins that make it hard to tell.

Barkley is Senator No. 1,865. He will be paid a prorated portion of the annual Senate salary of $150,000. His tenure officially began Nov. 5 and will end whenever the Senate adjourns for the year. He is eligible for the Senate's health insurance benefits for as long as he serves, but won't be here long enough -- five years is the minimum -- to collect a pension.

Like Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, Barkley's wife, Susan, will have continuing privileges in the Senate spouses' club, an honor that includes an annual luncheon at the White House. Dean Barkley will have access to the Senate floor for the rest of his life and will retain the title of "Senator" as long as he wants. "I think I get to keep the pin, too," he says, and frequently notes that the pin is worth "175 bucks."

Barkley's makeshift staff marvels at his apparent calm. "It's just an amazing thing to watch," says D'Amore, his golf pal and adviser.

Barkley has been diligent about absorbing Senate rules and protocol. He met yesterday morning with rules maven Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). He also met with the Senate parliamentarian, who taught him the fine points of how to vote, how to address the chair and how, when the Senate is in session, Ted Kennedy becomes "the senator from Massachusetts," and so forth. "There is this great 'Mr. Barkley Goes to Washington' aspect" to all this, says Kim Elliot, a former Weicker staffer who is helping Barkley. "But he's also approaching this with a great deal of seriousness."

Barkley is in his office Monday afternoon working on what would be his first Senate speech -- a eulogy for Wellstone. But Barkley keeps getting interrupted. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times walks in without an appointment and asks him what kind of cigar he's smoking -- or chewing (Cohiba) -- what kind of car he drives (Pontiac Firebird, charcoal gray, 1984), if he has any pets (a Chihuahua), the pet's name (Kiwi), his favorite food (steak) and the ages of his kids (13, 16 and 26).

Barkley is asked repeatedly that day whether he has chosen a caucus yet. No, not yet, he says.

Both Daschle and Lott were gracious, he says, but it's easy to discern a preference. "Daschle was more Midwestern laid-back," he says, "and Lott was more Southern-smooth." Lott, he says, gave a much harder sell. He has also made statements in the press that, Barkley says, imply that the new senator is leaning to the Republican caucus. "He seems awfully confident that he knows what's going on in my mind," he says of Lott. "I find that interesting. I don't think anyone knows what's going on in my mind but me."

Late on Monday, a few feet away from where Barkley is sitting, a young staffer is finishing a press release that will reveal the senator's caucus choice. Before the release goes out, Barkley will call Daschle and Lott. He does this out of courtesy, but also, he admits, because it's cool to be able to get people on the phone. "When you're a senator," he says, "you can call the switchboard and they'll find anyone you want to find. It's one of those perks."

Except that it turns out not to be so easy. Barkley's assistant, Kathleen D'Amore, Tom's wife, places a call to Daschle, and Barkley is on hold for about 10 minutes. "No music, no Muzak, no nothing," he says, looking up. "Hello? Hello?" Either the operator can't find Daschle or she doesn't know who Sen. Barkley is.

As Barkley waits on the line, he betrays a rare agitation. "Yes, this is Senator Barkley," he says briskly to an operator. "I'm holding for Mr. Daschle. And it's imperative that I speak with him."

The more he waits, the more nervous Barkley gets. He is studying a page of five talking points. Suddenly, Barkley begins talking and the room goes quiet.

"Hello, Senator Daschle, Senator Barkley here," he says. He says he will not join either caucus, which means that Daschle will temporarily remain majority leader.

But he's not done with Daschle yet.

"The only thing I need from you, senator, is your assurance that the homeland security bill will get to a floor vote," Barkley says. "Yes. Yes. Okay. Okay. Okay. Well, that's fair.

"And I have a couple of other things. I would like to sit at Senator Wellstone's old desk, if that's appropriate.

"And I'd like to use the Democratic cloakroom as a base and place to receive messages, if that's okay."

He thanks Daschle for his time, he hangs up, and the six staff members who were watching him tell him how great he did.

"Mi casa es tu casa," Barkley says, summarizing the discussion. Did Daschle actually say that?

"No," Barkley says. "I did."

Barkley takes a deep breath and takes a sip from a bottle of Coke as a call is placed to Lott's office. "This will be a lot harder," Barkley says, although it's easier to get Lott on the phone. He picks up instantly.

"How's it going with you, senator?" Barkley says, and he delivers his news with a few political caveats. His decision is firm, "unless something changes," and if certain things don't happen, "I certainly could change my mind." He reiterates that he will support the president on homeland security, and will do everything he can to ease Coleman's transition. The conversation seems to end abruptly, at least from Barkley's end. "Okay, thank you very much, bye," Barkley says, taking another deep breath.

"He was disappointed," he says hanging up. "I could tell from his voice."

"Jeez, they didn't shove me into a trailer when I was elected to the U.S. Senate," says Weicker, 71, as he barrels into Barkley's remote office, soaking from the rain. He joins 23 friends and family members who have come to watch Barkley's Senate debut yesterday. The roving clot of Minnesotans winds through a series of hallways, rides three elevators, fills three Senate subway cars and, finally, takes a section of seats in the Senate gallery.

There is scattered applause when Barkley makes his first appearance on the floor at 12:51 p.m. He looks around the chamber with wondrous blue eyes and suddenly finds himself holding court with the few senators on the floor -- Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Weicker, who is exercising his floor privilege as a former senator. Wellstone's desk is shrouded in black and covered with flowers, so Barkley will use the desk of Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) for the day.

"How many people get this chance?" Barkley was saying earlier, in a rare moment of total earnestness. "I understand these are unique circumstances where a two-month serving senator can actually have some influence in this place."

As the first order of business, Dean Barkley, the 39th senator to serve from Minnesota, places his hand on a family Bible and takes an oath from Vice President Cheney. Barkley takes congratulations from Leahy, Byrd, Daschle and Lott, who adds a slap on the back for good measure.

And as Barkley heads off to a family-only ceremony and applause comes from the gallery, the distinguished senator from Minnesota makes two fists and shakes them ever so slightly.

It's been one caller after another for Sen. Dean Barkley (and administrative assistant Kathleen D'Amore), most wanting to know which party caucus he will join.Barkley received a warm welcome to the Capitol from Senate Republican leader Trent Lott and Democratic leader Tom Daschle; each sought the independent's support, but neither got it.A week after being sworn into the Senate, Barkley goes through the ceremony again, this time with Vice President Cheney administering the oath.While the boss gets acclimated at his desk, chief of staff Stan Donnelly, left, administrative assistant Kathleen D'Amore and communications director Bill Hillsman have much to do in a short time.