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Jesse's Clout
By Laura McCallum
September 20, 1999
Part of MPR Online's Campaign 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

As possible presidential candidates from Donald Trump to Pat Buchanan to Lowell Weicker flirt with the Reform Party, Governor Ventura has become a force they must reckon with. Ventura has had discussions with all three; publicly pronouncing Trump and Weicker fit for the party nod, while dismissing Buchanan.

When Ventura speaks, the media, political pundits and the public tend to listen, but will the Reform Party coalesce behind the candidate Ventura endorses? Many observers say while Ventura has a lot of clout, he hasn't demonstrated he's the unifying voice of the still-evolving party.

Some Reform Party members fear Ventura's tendency to capture the spotlight will overshadow the presidential nominee.
SOME POLITICAL OBSERVERS say Governor Ventura has generated interest in the Reform Party presidential race, resulting in coverage that might not be as extensive if Ventura weren't weighing in on potential candidates. Al Eisele, editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill, says Washington remains fascinated with Ventura's opinions, for good reason.
Eisele: He certainly has a major voice - probably THE major voice - in who the Reform Party candidate is going to be, just by virtue of the fact that he is the titular leader of the party, because he's the highest elected public official and the only governor in the Reform Party. So add that to his colorful personality and his outspokenness, he's certainly going to have a big voice in who the Reform Party candidate is going to be.
That voice is less likely to be heeded by supporters of party founder Ross Perot, who still wields considerable power in the party. Ventura has been outspoken on two recent party decisions, with mixed results. He won round one, when delegates to the party's national convention in Michigan backed Ventura's pick for national chair, Jack Gargan. But he lost round two, when the party's executive committee voted to hold next year's convention in California, rather than Minnesota. The current national chair, Perot loyalist Russ Verney, says some members feared Ventura's tendency to capture the spotlight would overshadow the presidential nominee. Verney says many Reform Party members respect Ventura, while others disagree with him.
Russ Verney is outgoing chairman of the Reform Party.
Verney: We have tens of thousands of members, each who do have opinions, who do look to leadership from Governor Ventura, Ross Perot, Pat Choate, and many others in the party, but ultimately make up their own minds based on a lot of factors.
Perot hasn't been visible in the debate over a Reform Party presidential nominee, but observers don't discount his influence. Party activists are still grateful to Perot for getting 19 percent of the vote in his 1992 presidential bid, and 8 percent in 1996, making the Reform Party the first third party in U.S. history to get more than five percent of the vote in two consecutive elections.

Ron Rapoport, Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary, surveyed Reform Party members between 1992 and '97. He says people who worked for Perot in '92 tended to support Buchanan over Dole in '96, and notes both Perot and Buchanan believe in a form of economic nationalism. Just because Ventura doesn't think Buchanan is a good fit for the Reform Party, Rapoport doesn't count him out.
Rapoport: Buchanan is someone who will be able to mobilize people to vote for him. They may not be people who are in the Reform Party now, but I mean, he has some appeal for the Reform Party constituency as it exists, and he is certainly a national figure.
But Rapoport says it's difficult to predict who will strike the strongest chord among Reform Party members next year; he says party membership is a moving target, and the current activists may not be the group that determines the presidential nominee in 2000. Party leaders note it's still very early in the process. Chairman Russ Verney says the party will select a nominee through a national nominating ballot next July, and the results will be tallied at the August convention. By then, Trump and Buchanan may no longer be in the picture - and Ventura may be backing an entirely new candidate.