In a battle pitting the two titans of third-party politics against each other, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and former presidential candidate Ross Perot are competing for control of the Reform Party--and with it, more than $12 million in federal money for the 2000 presidential election.
The contest involves two politicians for whom modesty is an alien concept--"humility will not be a factor in the outcome," one political observer said.
More important, however, the contest could have significant consequences for the 2000 presidential election. If the Perot forces win, either he or someone he anoints will likely be the Reform Party nominee. If the Ventura forces win, Ventura plans to push the candidacy of former Connecticut senator and governor Lowell Weicker.
Ventura's allies are planning to open up party rules in ways that would give such potential competitors for the nomination as Patrick J. Buchanan a better shot. Republican leaders are worried that Buchanan could bolt the party and seek the Reform Party nomination and siphon off significant numbers of conservative voters from the GOP nominee.
The Reform Party is eligible for $12.6 million in federal money to support its 2000 candidate because Perot received more than 5 percent of the vote in the 1996 election.
A win in the leadership fight by pro-Ventura forces would amount to a repudiation of Perot, the founder of the party, and clearly threaten whatever chances the Reform Party has to receive funding in the future from one of the richest men in America.
The first, and perhaps deciding, test of strength will take place over the weekend of July 23-25, when the Reform Party will elect new leadership at a convention in Dearborn, Mich.
Ventura has endorsed a full slate, including Florida Reform Party leader Jack Gargan for party chairman. In a statement considered highly provocative by Perot allies, Ventura has warned that if the convention does not pick a chairman he likes, he may jump ship. "If the convention delegates are not willing to elect and support the best person for the job, I'll remain reluctant to fully embrace the National Reform Party," Ventura wrote in an open letter available on the Internet. "I'll keep my national party options open."
Ventura has said he plans to keep a promise to serve out his four-year term as governor and has no intention of running for president in 2000. He has, however, discussed the prospect of running with Weicker, who has shown some interest.
Ventura and his allies have been highly critical of Perot, arguing that the Texas entrepreneur has led the party on a downward path, losing ballot access in 10 or more states. Another Perot candidacy, they said, could prove fatal to the movement.
The Ventura-Perot struggle has turned into a no-holds-barred barroom fight on the Internet, where adversaries are far more determined to inflict pain than ever was the case during Ventura's professional wrestling career.
"Well folks, Governor 'Flash in the Pan' Ventura 'Ain't Got Time to Bleed' apparently also ain't got time to think," wrote Perot ally Paul Truax, a leader of the Texas Reform Party, referring to the title of Ventura's new book. Ventura "has now brought us all together by endorsing the most hated man in Connecticut, Lowell Weicker."
Truax and others in the Perot wing blame Ventura aide Phil Madsen as much as the Minnesota governor for causing the internal conflict in the party. "Another great move, Phil Madsen. How does it feel to be the most despised man in the Reform Party USA?" Truax asked in a widely distributed e-mail.
Ventura, who will address the convention opening night, faces a tough fight winning the chairmanship for his candidate, Gargan. The convention delegates have already been picked in state meetings, and many are believed to be loyal to Perot and well-known to the candidates Perot's allies are supporting.
In contrast, the Ventura forces were struggling just to get the names, and maybe the addresses and phone numbers, of the delegates in what would amount to a last-minute attempt to lobby for their support.
The battle for the chairmanship became a wide-open contest early this month when the current chairman, Perot ally Russel J. Verney, announced that he would not seek reelection. Verney adamantly denied suggestions that he pulled out because of the attacks from the Ventura wing.
Without fully endorsing either, Verney said two other candidates, vice chairman Patricia Benjamin of New Jersey and Pennsylvania chairman Thomas McLaughlin, have "the skills, experience and dedication necessary to lead this emerging party."
Like Truax, Verney is highly critical of Madsen. "He's a brilliant man whose whole goal in life is to create havoc," Verney said of Madsen.
Madsen, in turn, is no shrinking violet in this fight. A Madsen e-mail warns that if Perot, who is scheduled to speak at the convention, or Verney tries "to claim that the Reform Party has been a vibrant, growing organization in recent years, the press will have a field day."
CAPTION: If his forces gain control, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura plans to back Lowell Weicker for presidential nomination.
CAPTION: Ross Perot was Reform Party presidential nominee in 1992 and 1996, but critics say party has grown stale.