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Washington gets best of Ventura; Conference: Minnesota governor plays his capital debut to the hilt.


WASHINGTON -- Jesse Ventura's chin bobbed. His voice choked. His eyes got misty.

That's right, the nation's toughest governor is a big sissy. Or maybe macho men are allowed to show their soft side once they get elected.

Either way, the new Minnesota governor and former professional wrestler stifled a sob in a speech before the National Press Club yesterday as he described being invited to the White House, a sentimental highlight of his first official appearance in the nation's capital this week with the National Governors Association.

In the wrestling ring, such a gushing display might earn him a chair in the face. But yesterday, as Ventura alternately delivered patriotic emotion, roguish charm and action-figure bravado, the national political establishment obliged him with applause.

The man who once uttered the immortal line, "I ain't got time to bleed" in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, never made it in Hollywood. But he seems to have hit it big in that other land of unreality, Washington. His arrival here for the governors conference was something of a national coming-out party for Ventura, 47, who played his version of a blushing debutante to perfection.

Fresh off his upset victory as a Reform Party candidate in a three-way race, Ventura has rarely shied from the cameras since his arrival over the weekend and has been quick with comic relief. At the White House, Ventura, a former bodyguard for the Rolling Stones, regaled the Clintons with a story about his first proclamation -- a measure designating Feb. 15 as "Rolling Stones Day" in Minnesota -- stating, "whereas Keith Richards is 55 and still alive."

With the governors, he broke up a press gaggle around Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and then offered one of his favorite tough-guy movie lines: "I haven't met a Texan yet who hasn't drunk dirty water from a hoofprint." His audience seemed a little mystified.

In his Press Club speech, he appeared off-guard when asked what he thought of George Washington ("I never met him") but otherwise sounded off with confidence on everything from third-party politics (he's in favor) to snowmobiling on thawing lakes (he's against).

Ventura's straight-shooter schtick was at times brash -- "Is it my fault you married a bum?" he said in recalling a confrontation he had with a single mother this month in front of the Minnesota statehouse -- but never inside-the-Beltway boring.

Here are his news flashes: Ventura ruled out running for president in 2000. If he runs for governor again, he would like to finance it completely from sales of Jesse Ventura merchandise (for example, T-shirts that say, "My governor can beat up your governor" and top-selling plastic Jesse toys). And he believes more politicians will resemble him in the future.

"There will be more Jesse Venturas on the horizon," he said. "And that's not bad."

Ventura arrived at the Press Club in a dark suit -- no fringed buckskin, which he had worn on his arrival in Washington. He cleaned his plate of fried walleye and forked down a piece of rhubarb torte before hulking to the microphones, where he showed no trace of nervousness before a crowd of reporters, some of whom looked pet-size next to him.

This Washington visit was about more than politics. Ventura gushed about the city like a vacationer on tour, musing aloud at the Press Club that he wished he had cut in when he and his wife danced near the Clintons at a White House dinner Sunday night.

Unabashed and ungrammatical, he exclaimed:

"If I would have did that -- but I didn't. So you always in hindsight look back and go, 'Doggone it. What I should have did!' "

With a booming Midwestern twang, and frequent references to his former life as a Navy SEAL, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Ventura described his unorthodox journey from his days as "The Body" to his new life in the governor's office. He joked with the press, with whom he has had a tense relationship, saying that the disbelieving media coverage of his victory had unified Minnesotans and attracted talent to his staff.

"I want to say this," he told the crowd of nearly 400, mostly reporters. "Thanks to you, the press throughout the world, [for] saying 'What has Minnesota done? What is going on up there?' Well, that was our rallying cry to Minnesotans. We circled the wagons."

He is unapologetic about his bare-knuckled political style. Waving a palm-sized booklet he called "my principles," he stood by his vow to slash government funding for public radio in the state and warned that the two-party system was alienating voters with its big-money donations.

Ventura offered his own solution: candidate merchandising. "Think about it a moment," he said. "What's a cleaner way to get money? Me turning to you and say, 'Give me 50 bucks,' or selling you a T-shirt, where you buy it and the profits are used to support my campaign?"

While he said he wanted to fulfill his obligation to Minnesotans by completing his four-year term, Ventura did not rule out a run for the White House in 2004. But he also said he was just as likely in 2004 to wake up with the sun every morning in a beach hut in Hawaii.

To other governors, Ventura seems like their wacky younger brother.

"He says things that probably the rest of us couldn't get away with," Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland said yesterday. "But I think it's fun to have him here. I think he brings a different perspective, maybe makes us all a little less inhibited."

Ventura says he would like to be known as a serious politician; his aides said they were sorry he did not have more time to talk Minnesota policy before the cameras yesterday. But when in Washington, he is likely to be known as the unpredictable outsider with a body built for rough stuff and an ear for the hard-hitting quip.

But every once in a while, even he is willing to get a little mushy. "I was very pleased last night, my wife and I, to make our first trip to the White House," Ventura said yesterday, the moment he came close to tears. "And it was exceptional. It humbles you. It makes you feel good you're an American."

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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