'The Body' Slams Into Politics
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 1998; Page A1
MINNEAPOLIS, Oct. 21 The debate turns to the issue of crime, and the Reform Party's supersized gubernatorial candidate, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, sits patiently on the sofa in his golf shirt and worn sneakers waiting for the Republican and Democratic nominees to finish. Then he jumps in.
Law enforcement, he all but growls in his gravelly baritone, is a local issue – best handled by municipal officials, not state government. When he was a suburban mayor here a few years back, the crime rate fell "because we had a mayor with a little bit of military background who knew how to go out and kick some butt," said Ventura, a former professional wrestler, Navy Seal, actor and radio talk show host. "You need to have that little bit of attitude if you're going to deal with crime. If I get called in [to help as governor] then it's my way or the highway and get out of the way."
The Body has added a heavy dose of testosterone to Minnesota's governor's race, transforming an otherwise dull gubernatorial campaign into one of the most colorful – and suspenseful – in the nation this year. With little money and not a single television ad, Ventura has parlayed his celebrity and populist anti-government message into the most spirited third-party candidacy since Ross Perot's in 1992.
A Minneapolis Star Tribune poll released Tuesday shows that Ventura's support among likely voters has doubled since the September primary, to 21 percent. He trails the Democratic and GOP nominees – state Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III, until recently the clear frontrunner, and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman – who are locked in a dead heat with 35 percent and 34 percent, respectively, among likely voters.
But of the three candidates, Ventura has, by far, the greatest measurable momentum behind him. In a few weeks' time, he has surged beyond spoiler status to serious candidate, appealing to a much broader range of voters than anyone here ever imagined.
"I think people are fed up with politics and Jesse is the only authentic working-class candidate in the race," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "At the same time, politics has become more and more about entertainment . ... Jesse doesn't offer a lot of specifics but his is essentially a campaign built around a personality and in this volatile political atmosphere, it's working."
The 47-year-old Ventura stands apart from his rivals in every way. At 6-foot-4, he towers over Humphrey and Coleman. A Vietnam War veteran who never attended college, he met his wife at a biker bar, sends his two children to public schools and campaigns in torn jeans, sneakers, and a leather jacket. In stark contrast to the button-down, credentialed image of his opponents, both career politicians, Ventura's image is of the plain-spoken Everyman, even though he drives a Porsche and lives in a palatial home on the banks of the Mississippi River.
His 11-year professional wrestling career, which ended in 1986, and more recent stints as an actor and talk show host have allowed Ventura to be financially comfortable.
In the theater that is politics, the big man with the cleanshaven head and the deep voice has a clear advantage over Humphrey and Coleman, both of whom are regarded as more cautious than charismatic. Ventura is the only one of the three who has worked as a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones; used the score from the movie "Shaft" ("When the other guys were cashing government checks, he was in the Navy getting dirty and wet. ...") as his campaign's theme song; or appeared alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action film "Predator," in which he uttered one of the movie's most memorable lines: "I ain't got time to bleed."
Unable to afford television ads so far, Ventura has done well in televised debates and public appearances, preaching his brand of libertarian, get-government-off-your-back politics. His speech at a parade in rural Minnesota this summer attracted what organizers of the annual event described as one of its largest audiences.
"I think people are hearing something new, something different," Ventura said in an interview this week. "They know that I'm going to be straight with them. I won't make any promises I can't keep. I'm not a career politician. How many jobs have I had since I graduated from high school, while both my opponents, all they've done is collect government checks."
"I am going to vote for him for sure," said 54-year-old Bernard DeSmet, a welder who has voted Republican but favors Ventura's candor, and his mix of fiscally conservative and socially progressive views. "With Jesse, what you see is what you get. I believe he will do what he says he will."
What he says he will do is cut taxes, pare state government and reduce classroom sizes from a ratio of 19 students for every teacher to 17 to 1. He is less clear on how he will get there, which both Coleman and Humphrey point to as a sign of his inexperience as a manager.
"This is the top job in Minnesota," said Coleman's spokeswoman, Cyndy Brucato. "It's a tough job and it requires something other than the ultimate bully pulpit, if you will pardon my pun."
During a debate earlier this month, Ventura answered a question about the budget more like an ex-wrestler than a politician. "I want to go back after government," he said, raising his hands as if applying a choke hold. "I want to get in there and get my hands in there and find out where the pork is."
But if Ventura has been vague on issues ranging from the budget to his military service record, he also has demonstrated a disarming wit, a dexterity with the language and an earnestness that defies ideological typecasting and makes him appear a bit less prepackaged than his opponents. Today, at a luncheon speech to business owners, Ventura repeated his call that Minnesota considering legalizing prostitution. "We need to look at solving these social problems in a different way," he said.
When asked whether he supports a gay rights measure during a debate earlier this month, the tough-talking ex-wrestler provided this answer: "I have two friends that have been together 41 years. If one of them becomes sick the other one is not even allowed to be at the bedside. I don't believe government should be so hostile, so mean-spirited. ... Love is bigger than government."
Initially, the conventional wisdom here among pollsters and party officials was that Ventura's fiscally conservative views would draw voters who would otherwise vote for the GOP's Coleman. Indeed, Humphrey has refused all debates with Coleman if Ventura was not also present. But the Star Tribune poll suggests that Ventura's surge with the voters has come mostly at Humphrey's expense. Since the primary, Humphrey's support among likely voters has dropped by 14 percentage points, while Coleman's has increased by 5 percentage points.
That would suggest that Ventura is not only challenging Coleman for conservatives, but also contending with Humphrey for votes from organized labor and farmers. "Our polls have always shown that we draw equally from both camps," Ventura said.
Supporters for Ventura, however, aren't as solidly behind their candidate as supporters for Humphrey and Coleman, an indication that the major party candidates may be able to woo some of Ventura's fans. And the undecided voters here tend to be women and moderates, which might suggest an advantage for Humphrey, Schier said.
Ventura's competitiveness, Schier said, is due in part to the state's campaign finance laws, which limit each gubernatorial candidate to $2.1 million in spending. State law also guarantees state matching funds for all candidates who win at least 5 percent of the vote in the primary. That has provided an even playing field for Ventura, whose campaign this week received an infusion of more than $300,000 in bank loans, using the state funds as collateral. That should buy the Ventura campaign its first television ad.
"I think we're going to win," Ventura said in an interview this week. "The public wants someone to look up to." He pauses, then grins. "I'm 6-foot-4. They're not."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company