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Body-slam politics

Is everybody ready to rumble now that a real wrestler is in the gubernatorial ring in Minnesota?

By James Carney

TIME magazine

(TIME, Nov. 2) -- When Jesse ("The Body") Ventura starred on the professional wrestling circuit in the 1970s and '80s, he was usually cast as the bad guy. Decked out in a feather boa, sequins and the kind of oversize designer glasses Elton John made famous, the 6-ft. 4-in. Ventura would flex his muscles, glower at opponents and spit out such gems of wrestling wisdom as, "Win if you can, lose if you must, but ALWAYS cheat!"

Now that he's a candidate for Governor of Minnesota, Ventura, 47, has hung up his boa and no longer espouses cheating. But to the state's Democrats and Republicans, the former wrestler, actor and radio shock jock is still playing the bad guy. Most observers had considered Ventura's shoestring Reform Party campaign an entertaining sideshow to the main event. Then a new poll in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune showed him with an impressive 21% of the vote--double what he had had a month before and within striking distance of his two major rivals. Gnarled in a statistical headlock at about 35% each are the Establishment heavyweights: Democrat Hubert ("Skip") Humphrey III, the state's attorney general and son of the late Vice President, and his G.O.P. opponent, Norm Coleman, mayor of St. Paul. Now the Body is a supernova in the nation's staid midterm elections.

Dressed in a burgundy blazer, faded jeans and a T shirt for an appearance last week, he quoted Jim Morrison, Jerry Garcia and Deep Throat (the Watergate source, not the porn flick) to lash out at his favorite targets: a corrupt campaign-finance system, the sensationalist media and, most of all, career politicians. Students in the audience at Northfield's St. Olaf College hooted, applauded and did the Wave to show their appreciation. "He wants to help people," said David Parker, a starstruck St. Olaf sophomore who plans to vote for Ventura. "He's like a father figure."

To pro-wrestling fans, perhaps. But could the Body be a credible Governor? Steve Schier, chair of the political-science department at Carleton College, puts Ventura in the emerging populist tradition of Minnesota, a state that in 1992 gave 24% of its vote to Reform Party founder Ross Perot and in this decade has elected populists of both the left and the right--Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Rod Grams--to the U.S. Senate. Ventura's campaign slogan--"Retaliate in '98"--fits the tradition.

But Ventura's prominence has exposed the shallowness of his positions. Last week he found himself in the awkward situation of defending his suggestion that Minnesota consider legalizing prostitution while insisting that he did not favor the idea. Even if Ventura doesn't win, he may help decide who does. Until last week brand-name Humphrey seemed to be coasting to victory with a comfortable double-digit lead over Coleman. Not anymore. Now the race is so tight that whoever loses will no doubt insist the Body was to blame.

--With reporting by Kermit Pattison/Northfield

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: November 2, 1998

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