A Senate race already shaping up as a rowdy extravaganza took a step toward perfect chaos Wednesday with former Gov. Jesse Ventura's latest suggestion that he may well jump in, making a splash sure to be heard around the world.
In classic Ventura theatrical style, the ex-wrestler met a National Public Radio reporter in an undisclosed parking lot over the weekend to discuss his intentions, telling him that Minnesotans should "take a good hard look at all three of us and you decide. If you were in a dark alley, which one of the three of us would you want with you?"
But even if Minnesotans would want to meet the 6-foot-4 former Navy SEAL in a dark alley, would they vault him into what has been called the world's most exclusive club? Some believe it's possible.
"The mood of the public is surly," said Dean Barkley, who helped guide Ventura's gubernatorial victory, served in his cabinet and was appointed by Ventura to serve the last months of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's term. "People are blaming both parties for Congress' failure to do anything meaningful. People are looking for someone to be honest with them. His message would sell."
Ventura, who has made a career of igniting public interest in him, has thrown out teasers, but says he may not make a decision until Tuesday, when candidate filings close.
What his associates do know is that Ventura has been weighing the pros and cons of running for nearly a year and has gone so far as to contact some of his old team to ask if they're ready for a crack at Congress. Barkley and others say they've already told Ventura to count them in. "He knows I'd be in it," Barkley said.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Ventura said that "ultimately it will come down to whether I want to change my lifestyle."
Since leaving office Ventura has spent much time alternating between a stately home in Dellwood, golfing with pals, and surfing near a second home in Baja, Calif.
The ultimate protest vote
Ventura's entry into the Senate race would pit him in a three-way cage match against his old nemesis, Sen. Norm Coleman, whom he defeated for governor in 1998, and entertainer Al Franken, who trails Coleman in recent polls by double digits.
A recent three-way Rasmussen Poll showed Ventura pulling 24 percent.
Adman Bill Hillsman, who created the quirky political ads that helped catapult Ventura (and earlier Wellstone) to office, said a Ventura run could catch the magic a second time.
"The press doesn't love him, but the people do," Hillsman said.
Ventura "is the ultimate anti-establishment vote," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington. Duffy still has Minnesota rated a tossup for the Senate race, but said she is close to moving it into the "leans Republican" category. A formal Ventura candidacy "would seal the deal," she said.
Duffy and other analysts say Franken could suffer the most from an insurgent candidate such as Ventura, who would challenge his hold on the anti-Iraq war constituency.
In his 1998 triumph, Ventura cruised easily past the DFL gubernatorial candidate, Hubert H. Humphrey III, leaving the former state attorney general a distant third. But, as Ventura likes to note, he also beat Coleman, who finished second.
Neither the Coleman nor Franken campaigns would comment Wednesday on the possibility of a Ventura candidacy, although both earlier have said they thought Ventura was merely attempting to boost sales of his latest book.
One Senate candidate welcomes a Ventura run: Independence Party endorsee Stephen Williams, a 53-year-old sweet corn farmer from Austin who carries his party's mantle on his unknown shoulders. "I wouldn't mind debating Jesse a few times," he said Wednesday. "He would bring some attention to my candidacy if he was willing to stand close enough to me."
Ventura is not known for pulling his punches. In a June interview with Midwest Wine Connection (he won't talk to Minnesota political reporters), Ventura said that Coleman has "been collecting government checks since the day he got out of law school" and that Franken is an opportunistic carpetbagger who's "not too smart on taxes."
A mixed record
John Wodele, Ventura's former communications director, has stayed close to his old boss, but has no insight into whether he will or won't get in.
"I take him at his word when he says he has not made up his mind yet," Wodele said.
Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership who served as Ventura's commissioner of public safety, said that despite a tempestuous term as governor, Ventura would bring a definite list of accomplishments.
He can, Weaver said, remind voters of "Jesse checks," the individual tax rebates Ventura championed; of the light rail system he ushered in; of property tax reform, license tab fee reductions and a widely admired tripartisan cabinet.
"If this race is about change, there aren't many who would personify change more vigorously than Gov. Ventura," Weaver said.
Of course, voters would also be reminded of less appealing aspects of Ventura's term: brawls with legislative leaders, the media and anyone else who crossed him; cracks about religion; boastful tales of his wild motorcycle and Navy days; controversial moonlighting as a wrestling referee and commentator for a short-lived football league.
But Ventura will also be remembered for an ability to distill issues into head-slapping, a-ha moments for voters.
"There are very few people in the world who can process issues the way he does," said Steven Bosacker, Minneapolis city coordinator and former Ventura chief of staff. "He runs issues through the screen of a very interesting and broad life experience that results in something powerful for leadership."
In his Wine Connection interview, Ventura hinted at what may guide his decision beyond lifestyle choice. "I'll see if the country needs me or if Minnesota does. If Minnesota is content with these two candidates, I'll move on and stay in the Baja. But if I get the sense they're not content with what's being offered by the two parties, then that will have a bearing."
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455