Jesse Finds His Big Guy

Jesse Ventura knows just what the next president should look like: an independently elected governor, about 6 feet 4 or so, with hands like catchers' mitts and a size-50 suit. "I'd stand a very good chance," Ventura says. Unfortunately, Minnesota's iceberg-size executive is too busy running his state to run for anything else. So he's found another guy who fits that description: former Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker. Ventura thinks Weicker might have the swagger and the profile to lead his Reform Party to a strong showing in 2000. It's an odd friendship: Ventura, the former pro wrestler, and the blueblood Weicker, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. But during a three-hour meeting in Manhattan last month, the two men had an animated talk about building a more powerful third party. They share the same brash, bullying style, along with contempt for standard politics and an almost pathological need to stand up for the little guy.

Except for one little guy, that is: Ross Perot. And that, more than anything else, seems to be driving the idea of a Weicker candidacy. When Ventura ran for governor last year on the Reform ticket, Perot, the party's founder, wouldn't return his calls. They still don't talk, and now that Ventura is the de facto king of the independents, he wants Perot out of the way. Some Reform activists have been urging Ventura to seize control of the party, and last month he made his move, threatening to desert if delegates don't pick his candidate for chairman. Reform lost its automatic ballot access in all but 10 states after the 1996 election, and Ventura says that if Perot runs for president a third time, the party may not survive. "This isn't personal--it's business," Ventura told NEWSWEEK. "And if anyone understands business, it's Ross Perot."

Many Reformers think their best candidate would be The Body himself. Virtually unheard of outside wrestling circles a year ago, Ventura now enjoys an astounding 80 percent name recognition in California. He says he'd rather serve out his term. But he hasn't ruled out a run in 2004, and Ventura knows he would need the ballot access and matching funds to do it. That means having a credible candidate now. Sitting on a sun porch at his Greenwich farm, Weicker says he hasn't yet decided to run. "I've never gotten into a ring where I didn't have a chance to win. You and I both know this is a long shot."

In three terms as a maverick GOP senator, Weicker was best known for turning on Richard Nixon early and getting arrested to protest apartheid. He also racked up an impressive legislative record, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. Beaten in his fourth race, Weicker easily won the State House under the Connecticut Party banner. "This would be a great country if you could keep the Republicans out of the bedroom and the Democrats out of the boardroom," he likes to say. But he could be a hard sell. Sometimes arrogant, he makes enemies the way most pols make promises--effortlessly and often. And unlike Ventura and Perot, who are almost libertarian on social issues, Weicker is passionately liberal on topics like race and school prayer.

What Perot will do is anyone's guess. His handpicked party chairman stepped down last week, fueling speculation that Perot is ready to yield. Then there are other possible contenders. Right-wing Republicans Pat Buchanan and Bob Smith, who is said to be leaving the Republican Party, could seek Reform backing. And here's a strange thought: a close friend of Donald Trump's tells NEWSWEEK that he's also toying with a bid. Trump apparently thirsts for revenge on Weicker for blocking a casino in Bridgeport. The table is now open; let the betting begin.