He has worn a feather boa. He has body-slammed and headlocked his opponents. But the struggle over the Reform Party was too much for the former Navy SEAL and onetime professional wrestler. JESSE VENTURA was done with the party's atomization into factions and fiefs, the carping from Dallas, its creeping Buchananism. When JOHN ANDERSON, who ran for President as an independent in 1980, visited Ventura in Minnesota a few months back, he could tell the Governor was getting fed up. "He was tired of the dramatis personae," recalls Anderson, who briefly flirted with the idea of seeking the Reform Party nod. Last week Ventura discussed his decision to hang it up in a phone call with state chairman and ally RICK MCCLUHAN. "You write for a family magazine, so I can't quote him exactly," recalls McCluhan. Last Friday, Ventura stood before the cameras in a Rolling Stones jacket and a denim shirt at the Governor's residence in St. Paul and declared himself free of the Reform Party, an independent Independent.
Ventura's departure from Reform's ranks is only the latest chapter in the predictable tale of fruitless fights for respect by third parties. Reform earned an astonishing 19% of the vote in the 1992 presidential race. But after founder ROSS PEROT's far worse finish in the 1996 presidential contest, the party seemed doomed--an antideficit party in a budget-surplus world. Ventura's 1998 gubernatorial win gave Reform new life and its first major officeholder, but there was no honeymoon. Ventura and Perot eyed each other with suspicion; the two have spoken only twice in their lives. Ventura felt that Perot gave him no help when he ran for Governor and that the Texas billionaire saw him as a bit of a kook. When JACK GARGAN, Ventura's candidate, became the party's chair last year, war broke out. Then came the parade of drop-ins--first DONALD TRUMP, then WARREN BEATTY. By the time professional activist LENORA FULANI had relocated in PAT BUCHANAN'S kitchen, it was just too weird. Last week, Perot allies ousted Gargan in a meeting marred by shouting and shoving. When Ventura dubs the party a "dysfunctional family," he's being kind.
The fighting hasn't helped anyone. In Minnesota the Reform antics have been a distraction for a Governor with an ambitious agenda and evanescent support in the statehouse. Nationally the party has been fractured, with members going to court over such issues as whether to hold the national convention in Long Beach, Calif., or St. Paul.
Still, the Ventura departure has consequences. It's all but impossible for Donald Trump to seek the party's nomination, clearing the way for Pat Buchanan--unless the mercurial Perot should get in. A Buchanan candidacy could drain votes from the G.O.P. in the fall, especially if the Republicans nominate JOHN MCCAIN, whom many on the right may find unacceptable. Reform still comes with a prize of ballot access and $12.6 million in federal matching funds.
The strength of the two-party system and the bane of third parties is this: the big parties co-opt the little parties' ideas. REAGAN adopted the anti-Beltway resentments of populist GEORGE WALLACE as surely as F.D.R. waylaid the assaults of socialist NORMAN THOMAS. This year, reform belongs not to Reform but to McCain, whom Ventura might even endorse. It certainly means less theater. And while that's less fun, it may not be so bad.
--By Matthew Cooper/Washington