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White Bear Lake, Minn. — A couple hundred students at Century College in White Bear Lake packed an auditorium to hear Ventura speak for an hour. He began by explaining his new look - long black hair and a braided beard.
"I did this for a simple reason. I stand for freedom. And freedom in this country means freedom to look like you want to," Ventura said.
Ventura says no former governor from either the Republican or Democratic Party would have the guts to try a similar look. Ventura then explained why he's supporting Kerry for president. He says after the third presidential debate, it was clear that John Kerry understands the separation between church and state.
Ventura says President George W. Bush can't distinguish between his personal religious beliefs and his job. He cited Bush's opposition to federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Opponents of legalized abortion object to the research because it destroys days-old human embryos.
"To me, a president should not put his personal spiritual beliefs in front of science. If we had that type of attitude, we'd probably still have polio today, if we had beliefs that didn't allow scientific discovery. Now, people may say you're not very religious -- yes, I am. I believe God gave me a brain to use," Ventura said.
Ventura also criticized Bush for the growing federal deficit, saying Bush paid for tax cuts by racking up debt on the nation's credit card. And he had harsh words for the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. Ventura says Bush has alienated the rest of the world, and the war has not made the U.S. safer. He says Bush invaded Iraq when he should have been focusing on Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
"I would have hunted down Osama Bin Laden 'til he was dead, before I would have ever entertained anything about Iraq. My parents taught me (to) finish the job at hand, finish the job you got in front of you, before you worry about the other job down the road," he said.
Ventura says leaders shouldn't ask troops to do something they didn't do themselves. He says Bush did not serve with honor when he was in the National Guard, and received preferential treatment.
Ventura answered questions from students on a host of issues, but said he won't talk to the Minnesota media. He says reporters attacked his children by reporting on allegations of underage drinking at the governor's residence.
"It's my only way of fighting back on 'em," he said.
Ventura says he's still under contract with MSNBC, and can't do media interviews. He says MSNBC took him off the air because he opposed the war in Iraq. He also said he's lost 40 pounds since he left office, and said the real reason he didn't run for re-election is because he was concerned about his wife's health. He didn't elaborate. At the time he said he wanted to protect his family's privacy.
Students sat riveted during Ventura's appearance, and some said afterwards that they thought Ventura's endorsement of Kerry might sway some voters. Katie Roelofs, 20, says she agreed with most of what Ventura said.
"His opinion and what he can say does strike with us, because he knows how to speak to the younger generation, like he knows how to say something that can keep our attention ... Most politicians, we would have been wondering what we were going to eat for lunch," Roelofs said.
Roelofs will vote for the first time on Tuesday, and plans to vote for Kerry. She says she's opposed to the war, and says her generation is fighting overseas. She says one of her friends lost half his leg while fighting in Iraq.
State Republican Party chair Ron Eibensteiner says he doesn't think Ventura's Kerry endorsement will have much impact on the election. He says Ventura has lost credibility with voters.
"I think the reason that he's involved in this latest little venture of his is probably he misses the limelight and he wants to be relevant somehow. But I'm really not surprised that he's endorsing Kerry because while he was governor, he ran as an independent, he governed as a Democrat and now he's simply coming out of the closet and letting everyone know that he is a Democrat," Eibensteiner said.
Ventura told students that Eibensteiner's comments irritated him. He indicated that's why he's now speaking out about his endorsement.