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
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
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
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."
by James Carney/Washington
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Cover Date: September 27, 1999