`Body' beats the `Mouth'

July 28, 1999|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Too bad a gravel-voiced ring announcer wasn't around to introduce Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and billionaire Ross Perot when they grappled for the Reform Party championship belt this past weekend.

Any doubt about how the title match between the Body and the Mouth came out? Nope. The Body devastated the Mouth.

Sure, Mr. Ventura -- the enormously popular former wrestler -- tried to be gracious to Mr. Perot. "A job well done. We owe him a great debt," Mr. Ventura told Reform delegates in Dearborn, Mich., by phone. On talk shows, though, Mr. Ventura trashed Mr. Perot: "Time for him to step aside."

In a farewell speech to the party he invented, bankrolled and used for his ego machine, Mr. Perot never mentioned Mr. Ventura by name. "The last thing I want is cat fights," Mr. Perot said. "I'll always be happy to participate in a constructive way."

The sentimental reformers chanted, "Ross! Ross!" Then in effect they chucked Mr. Perot out the door. They turned over the party to Mr. Ventura's hand-picked chairman, Jack Gargan, a bombastic Floridian who led the term-limits fight.

The coup shows how ephemeral political fame can be. The Reform Party was Mr. Perot's toy. He spent $72 million. He paid for the Dallas headquarters, the staff, the TV ads. It was his personal rocket. Remember 1992? Mr. Perot scared the bejeebers out of the mainstream parties, jabbered in TV debates, got an impressive 19 percent.

But Mr. Perot pulled only 8.5 percent in 1996. He's a retread -- Harold Stassen with big ears. His own party, bought and paid for, dumped Mr. Perot like dirty laundry.

Whither now, Reformers? Mr. Ventura, keeping his promise to Minnesota voters, won't try for president in 2000. He'd love to have former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, a bellicose maverick, keep the seat warm so Mr. Ventura could run in 2004.

Don't snicker at Mr. Ventura's prospects. In a CNN/Time poll, he netted 17 percent in a three-way race against Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

The Reformers are in search of a star. They'd like to recruit Colin Powell (no chance). Some want Ralph Nader (that's pizazz?). Pat Buchanan would happily take their helm. So would New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, who recently left the GOP.

The only fusspots taking these theatrics seriously are Mr. Bush's handlers. They're nervous about any third-party candidate siphoning disenchanted conservatives in close states.

One guess: Unless the stock market goes kaboom, there won't be a strong third-party 2000 challenger. The angry white males have vanished in boom times.

Second hunch: Without Mr. Perot's deep pockets, energy and sloganeering, the Reform Party will crumble. Its anti-Washington issues have dissipated, its zealots split into jigsaw pieces.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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