Wrestler plans Ventura-like leap into political ring

'Nature Boy' Ric Flair may run for governor of North Carolina. Now is the time for maverick politicians.

Former pro wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura stunned the country when he claimed the governor's belt, er, chair in Minnesota. Now, it seems Ric "Nature Boy" Flair may try to put a similar stranglehold on politics here.

To the horror of the political elite in Raleigh, N.C. - and the bemusement of a growing cast of voters disaffected with politics as usual - the platinum-blond Flair says he's "90 percent" ready to announce his candidacy for governor of North Carolina.

The popularity of Governor Ventura, who last week quit the Reform Party, and the rise of maverick Sen. John McCain in recent presidential polls are evidence of voters yearning for a different kind of candidate. But even more than Ventura's surprise victory in 1998, political analysts say, a Flair candidacy would test exactly how far a public eager for straight-talkers is willing to go to shake up the political establishment.

"The kind of voters [who would vote for Flair] are the old school politicians' worst nightmares," says Sean Perry, a technical writer in Newmarket, N.H., who awoke out of an eight-year political stupor to back Senator McCain in his overwhelming New Hampshire primary win. "And that is that the people who they count on not showing up at the polls will show up."

Unlike Ventura, whose centrist views became well-known as a radio talk-show host and mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn., Mr. Flair is still a political mystery.

Known for his swaggering style and outrageous egotism - "Whooo, stylin' and profilin'!" is his war cry - Flair, a 14-time wrestling champ, has spent 30 years building up a huge following of loudmouthed, placard-waving fans who love him more the worse he acts.

Outside the ring, however, he is known as a businessman and a shrewd political contributor.

The owner of a chain of successful bodybuilding gyms in Charlotte, N.C., Flair has stumped for former President George Bush and conservative Sen. Jesse Helms.

But he has yet to announce a platform for his own candidacy, and will have to file as an independent after missing last week's party filing deadlines.Now, instead of just paying a filing fee, Flair must gather 96,000 signatures by June 15 to get on the ballot as an independent.

If nothing else, Flair, who is not talking to the press until he makes up his mind, would spice up a luke-warm race between five low-profile candidates vying for the seat being vacated by popular four-term Gov. James Hunt.

"He loves the state of North Carolina, and he would serve the state well from the governor's chair," says Alan Sharp, a spokesman for World Championship Wrestling.

Despite Flair's past service to the Republicans, many party activists sighed in collective relief when Flair missed the filing deadline last week.

"This is all about the cynicism of the younger age groups," says Bernie Reeves, a conservative pundit and former editor of Raleigh's Spectator opinion weekly. "It cheapens a system that's cheap enough as it is. It's all about [Flair] exploiting the lowest common denominator and taking advantage of it through the media."

Other political figures were quick to quash any attempt to put Flair in the same group as McCain, a war hero with a well-defined populist message.

But up in New Hampshire, where McCain won the GOP primary by 19 points, Mr. Perry says Flair might have a certain McCain-like appeal. People are tired of slick politicians and want public servants to speak their mind unapologetically - and loudly, if need be, he says. Who better than a pro wrestler for that?In a way, pro wrestling is a kooky doppelganger of American politics, where inflated rhetoric, mano a mano challenges, and prefab behind-the-scenes story lines seem to pull the strings behind what the public sees.Candidates like Ventura have redefined that picture, drawing aside the curtains to expose the inner workings.

Indeed, former pro wrestler Bob Backlund, who once played a right-wing wrestling character seeking the presidency, has also filed to vie for a US Senate seat from Connecticut.

"What draws people to these kind of candidates is that they say what they mean to say," Perry says. "They're not like George W. Bush or Al Gore, who'll do and say anything for a vote."

But he also says Flair would face tough questions about his policy and his past, should he decide to run.Moreover, North Carolina voters have tread carefully around independents and sports stars who have broached politics in the past.In 1996, retired race-car driver Richard Petty, despite a huge boost of pre-election press and expectations, lost a race for secretary of state by a wide margin.

Even Flair's family has doubts about the Nature Boy's chances. When asked if he thinks his legendary son has a shot, retired doctor Richard Fliehr, says, "No, I don't. But, then, there's lots I don't understand about politics."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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