Ventura backs rival to Perot leadership

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JESSE VENTURA, the maverick governor of Minnesota, is applying some of his famous former professional wrestler's muscle to the leadership of the languishing Reform Party, challenging the party's founder, Ross Perot, none too subtly for control.

The contest, which pits two of the biggest political egos in American politics against each other, will determine who allocates more than $12m (pounds 8m) in federal subsidies for the party's presidential election effort and, in effect, who the party will nominate as its candidate.

Taken with yesterday's defection of Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire from the Republican Party, the Ventura-Perot rivalry starts to make the arena of third-party politics look crowded and even more volatile.

While Senator Smith has decided to continue his presidential run as an independent and not seek another party affiliation, reports that he could join either the low-tax Taxpayers' Party or the Reform Party make him a possible player in the Reform Party rivalry.

Mr Ventura, who ran for the Minnesota governership last year as a rank outsider and unexpectedly won, ran on the Reform Party platform and received its imprimatur. However, he received no campaign funding from the party, an omission that poisoned his relations with Mr Perot and continues to irk him. His suspicion is that Mr Perot feared that "his" party, with its protectionist but unconventional platform, was not big enough for the both of them.

Now, two weeks before the party's annual convention, the duel has burst into the open, with the revelation that allies of Mr Ventura plan to table changes to party rules that would open up the process of nominating a presidential candidate.

Were Mr Perot to prevail in the internal party wrangling, he as party leader, is likely to be the presidential candidate, as he has been in the past. Mr Ventura's election success last November, however - a triumph at the ballot box that Mr Perot has never achieved - could give him a following that could weigh more heavily with delegates than loyalty to Mr Perot as the party's millionaire founder and chief provider of funds.

Mr Ventura's undoubted personal magnetism is an additional factor and he plans to build on it with a return to the wrestling ring next month - his first appearance, at 48, since he retired 13 years ago.

Mr Ventura announced last week that he favoured a former Connecticut Senator and Governor, Lowell Weicker, to secure the party's presidential nomination.

Others hazard that the conservative Republican, Pat Buchanan, or even Bob Smith, who is a Catholic conservative associated with the Moral Majority, would be plausible candidates.

The Christian conservative credentials of either could attract votes away from the likely Republican nominee, George W Bush. The Democrats' hope, and the Republicans' fear, is that the voting could replicate the 1992 election result, when Ross Perot's strong showing cost the Republicans votes and gave Bill Clinton victory.

While Jesse Ventura appears to have no personal ambitions for the presidency next year, control of the Reform Party could give him a springboard for a bid in 2004 - an ambition he has not denied.