- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2008

“The Body” could well be back.

After declining to run for a second term as Minnesota’s governor in 2003, citing media intrusion into his family’s life, former pro wrestling star and author Jesse Ventura may be poised to drop a political pile driver on what some are predicting will be one of the nation’s most exciting and costly races for the U.S. Senate.

With just a week to go before the filing deadline, Minnesota tongues are wagging at the thought of the tough-talking, insouciant Mr. Ventura throwing his hat into the political ring once again — shaking up an election that is already gaining national buzz. With a former “Saturday Night Live” star, a vulnerable GOP incumbent and now the unpredictable upstart who currently spends quality time surfing in Mexico, the already hot two-man race could become a live-wire troika.

“The eyes of the country may soon turn in to what could be the biggest Las Vegas-style race we’ve seen in decades,” said Lawrence Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. “If Jesse Ventura jumps into this race — and my hunch is that he will — this could be perhaps the most unpredictable and exciting match that we’ve seen. It’s shaping up as extraordinary.”

Mr. Ventura, who has recently been on a book tour to promote his latest effort, “Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me,” has been coy about making an announcement in advance of the filing deadline, and on Wednesday shot down reports by National Public Radio that he’s definitely entering because he’s angered by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman’s support for the Iraq War.

“I gave [NPR] the reasons why I would run,” Mr. Ventura said. “But I said, ultimately, it will come down to whether I want to change my lifestyle and go to that lifestyle or not.”

When he ran for governor in 1998, he waited to the last day to file. This year’s filing deadline is July 15 — his 57th birthday.

The suspense Mr. Ventura is creating by insinuating he might run but not talking about it is vintage Ventura drama and a politically savvy move that draws attention to him and away from his opponents, Mr. Jacobs said.

“Jesse Ventura would recast the election if he decides to enter. By any conventional set of measures and history, it’s hard to take this guy seriously, but Ventura is a one-of-a-kind candidate who doesn’t play by the rules. His political firepower is unique.”

The Senate race in Minnesota leads the country in campaign fund raising with $27 million. If he does run, Mr. Ventura will face incumbent Mr. Coleman, a Republican who leads in the polls, and former SNL comic Al Franken, a Democrat and Minnesota native who returned from his long show-business career in New York and has been active in Democratic Party politics.

Mr. Ventura beat Mr. Coleman and Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey III in his 1998 bid for governor, surprising many who wondered if his grass-roots campaign had the power to oust veteran politicians.

Mr. Coleman’s camp was quiet with reaction on any political plans by Mr. Ventura. “We really don’t have anything to say about the possibility of Jesse getting into the race,” said Tom Erickson, campaign spokesman.

Mr. Franken could not be reached for comment.

During his early tenure as Minnesota’s governor, Mr. Ventura was popular, earning approval ratings in the 70 percent range, but he later ran afoul of the media and the Legislature and declined to run for a second term.

Although Mr. Ventura has been out of the political spotlight for some time, recent polls show him shaking up the current race and shaving away support from both Mr. Coleman and Mr. Franken. Mr. Coleman, a former St. Paul mayor who is originally from New York, would win a three-way match-up, garnering 41 percent to Mr. Franken’s 31 percent and Mr. Ventura’s 23 percent, according to a Survey USA poll conducted in mid-June.

In other polls, Mr. Ventura is drawing about a fifth of Democratic voters and a fifth of Republicans and doing reasonably well with independents — even though he has not yet declared himself a candidate, putting him in a strong position to do damage in a Senate election.

“If he doesn’t win, he’ll have a significant impact on the race if he were to run,” Mr. Jacobs said. “He will drain support from Al Franken, taking away that anti-incumbent vote that Franken needs. It’s all but impossible for Franken to win if Ventura jumps in.”

Ben Goldfarb, a political strategist who managed the campaign of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, said the reaction he’s seen to a possible Ventura candidacy has been “so what?” He said it remains a two-man contest and an election that will be so competitive it will go down to the wire. Minnesotans, he said, are more focused on the dire needs facing their state.

“I think at the end of the day Minnesotans are very thoughtful and very deliberate in how they make decisions and who they want to support with the state of our country and the world,” he said. “I feel pretty strongly that people are looking for someone who is offering real solutions to big foreign and domestic issues.”

Mr. Ventura’s tenure as governor also makes him vulnerable this time around should he run, said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report in Washington, who said Mr. Ventura’s record in office is “very mixed.” She cites a March 2002 Minneapolis Star Tribune poll that showed 31 percent of voters thought Mr. Ventura deserved to be re-elected, while 62 percent said someone new deserved a chance.

“I somehow wonder if his consideration and talk of running had anything to do with or was a coincidence that started about the time he released a new book,” she said. “Sure, it will probably impact a close race if he runs, but I don’t think he has a shot at winning it to the extent of his pretty high disapproval rates when he left office. He didn’t have a very good relationship with the Legislature.”

Although naysayers cast doubt on Mr. Ventura’s current political power and call him a long shot, his political savvy should not be underestimated, Mr. Jacobs said. When he ran for governor, Mr. Ventura would leave the candidate debates and take his bus on a tour of local bars, garnering more media attention for himself and casting him as a man of the people with his unconventional campaign style.

“One key is that his career in professional wrestling required business savvy and how to build consumer interest,” Mr. Jacobs said. “He has real smarts for that sort of building a crowd.”

While Mr. Franken has received support from his pals in Hollywood and has been successful in raising money and garnering support from Democrats around the state, funding may not be as crucial for Mr. Ventura, who already has a base of support in Minnesota and ongoing admiration from independent-minded voters around the nation.

“His name recognition is already established,” Mr. Jacobs said. “He’s got this uncanny ability to convert voters and generate quite a bit of media coverage. He’s a brilliant master of ceremonies in grabbing the audience’s attention.”

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