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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Take my party, please

Jesse Ventura may not run for President in 2000--but he wouldn't mind if Donald Trump joined the fray

By Michael Duffy and Matthew Cooper/Washington

TIME magazine

September 20, 1999
Web posted at: 3:50 p.m. EDT (1950 GMT)

Maybe the meeting at the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino is not destined to be remembered along with Yalta and Potsdam as one of history's great summits. But back in 1988, at the World Wrestling Federation's Wrestlemania IV in Atlantic City, Donald Trump met Jesse ("the Body") Ventura. The real estate parvenu was impressed by the wrestler's sense of showmanship. The two remained casual acquaintances over the years--they became pen pals and talked about golf. Eleven years later, they find themselves soulmates: each would deny Patrick J. Buchanan the Reform Party's presidential nomination. Trump is eyeing the race and has ordered up an analysis of the Reform Party's ballot-access rules.

Trump is not the only big name hovering at the party's edge. Buchanan, former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, Ross Perot and Warren Beatty--each, along with Trump, has considered (casually, at least) a run. And why not? With more than $12 million in federal matching funds and, perhaps, a chance to be in the presidential debates, the party's nomination is the stage for an angry voice. There's no ideological price of admission. The party, founded by Perot, welcomes earnest centrists eager for entitlement reform as well as anti-new world order conspiracists. So each potential candidate, from the hard left to hard right, can justifiably see it as terra firma.

If Trump wants it, then it's good news for George W. Bush. For months Bush has been worried about Buchanan's entering the race as a spoiler who would pull conservative votes from George W. the same way Perot stymied his dad. Indeed, a prominent G.O.P. source tells TIME that a Bush envoy visited Minneapolis recently and spoke to Ventura allies about the Reform Party nomination. The envoy didn't explicitly push a Trump candidacy or a Ventura run--something the Minnesota Governor has officially ruled out. But the envoy did ask if Ventura would fight a Buchanan bid. The answer came back: he would welcome others in the race. (The Bush camp denies even sending an envoy.) Buchanan, of course, bristles at the idea of a Ventura-Trump-Bush alliance. He told TIME last week, "When people talk about the insiders fixing the game, that's exactly what this says."

The Bushies like a Trump candidacy because they think it would pull votes from the Democrats. They may be right. Trump's database of his 6.5 million customers reads like a Democratic mailing list. "They are black, Hispanic, Catholic, white working-class and mostly male," said a Trump adviser. "They stay at our hotels. They play at our tables. They like his plane. They like his boat. They like his house. They like his girlfriends. They all love Trump." The source added, "The Reform Party becomes Gore's worst nightmare, instead of Bush's."

Trump's lobbyist in Washington, Roger Stone, is helping his client consider a race. Stone, known in G.O.P. circles for his dapper dress and libertarian leanings, began urging the Donald to run last spring. Trump wasn't interested. The developer had dabbled in politics at least once before. He spoke in New Hampshire in late 1987 but soon lost interest. Three weeks ago, Trump called Ventura, and the two talked politics. Ventura urged Trump to consider a run, pleading for a nonpolitician to carry the Reform Party flag. They discussed taxes, regulation and campaign-finance reform. Last week Ventura called Trump but did not commit to supporting him. After that call Trump asked Stone to assess how the New Yorker might fare under the ballot rules. "He is going to look at [the race] seriously," Stone told TIME.

What Trump will find is that the rules are complex. "This thing is like a giant calculus problem," Buchanan says. To become the Reform nominee, a candidate must essentially pass a two-part test. First, try to get on the ballot in some 30 states where the Reform Party is not slated already. If a candidate can get on enough ballots, then he's eligible for a national primary--an open-door affair in which any eligible voter who requests a Reform ballot can participate. On paper, at least, the rules are fair. But there's still room for mischief. Republicans or Democrats can sabotage the Reform Party's primary, flooding it with ballots in an effort to nominate someone who would most hurt their opponent.

Who might prevail in the Reform Party's superbout is anyone's guess. Conventional wisdom says that while Buchanan's hawkishness on trade helps get him in the door, he may have trouble explaining to libertarian-minded reformers why he opposes abortion. But conventional wisdom may not apply in Reformland. After all, Ventura has managed to become the party's leading officeholder while being a free trader--something that puts him at odds with a central tenet of the party's platform. Although the winner remains uncertain, so do the candidates. Beatty is said to favor running for the Democratic nomination; Weicker will decide in the next few weeks, but he told TIME, "There's so much on my agenda"; Perot has stepped back for now, yet no one can predict the moves of the mercurial Texan. Teamsters boss James P. Hoffa is thinking about the Veep spot on the Reform ticket, but will not run for President. That leaves Buchanan and Trump.

What would Trump get from a race? He burnishes his brand name and, like Buchanan, he's peddling a book--The America We Deserve--due out in January. What does Ventura get out of a Trump bid? The former wrestler objects to Buchanan's social-policy views and may run on the Reform ticket in 2004. Trump is a perfect placeholder. And Ventura genuinely admires Trump. As one Ventura pal puts it, "They're both entrepreneurs who've had wild lives and believe in living their life as an open book. Their views are simpatico." Indeed, Ventura recently snickered that the liberal Beatty should run for President of the "United Socialist States of America." And he touted Trump. "I like what he has to say," Ventura has told friends.

Of course, Trump's odds of being President are akin to hitting the jackpot on two of his slots simultaneously. His finances make the Clintons' look simple; his women outnumber the President's. But third parties aren't really about winning. They're about changing the electoral debate--and influencing who wins in the end. That's why even Bush backers who joke privately about Trump ("He doesn't want to live in the White House; he wants to develop it") are relishing his possible appearance in politics. "We love this. We just love it."

--With reporting by James Carney/Washington


Cover Date: September 27, 1999

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