Gore meets Ventura, talks of funding shifts

By Ann Scales, Globe Staff, 3/12/2000

INNEAPOLIS - Al Gore, making a pitch to reform-minded supporters of Bill Bradley and John McCain, yesterday praised Jesse Ventura, the Minnesota governor, as ''an important national voice'' on campaign finance.

The hourlong meeting of Gore and Ventura, just as the vice president faced questions over his possible role in the 1996 White House fund-raising scandal, ended without an endorsement from Ventura. And Gore said he had not asked for one.

''I purposely didn't because I thought it was way too early,'' Gore said. ''We just talked about issues. We talked about campaign finance reform. We talked about political reform.''

Ventura, who recently left the Reform Party, said: ''Endorsements can come later. There's a long time between now and November.'' He said he had met with Gore ''to voice my concerns with the potential president of the United States'' on behalf of Minnesota's citizens, just as he would do with George W. Bush, the likely Republican nominee for president.

Gore initiated the meeting in a phone call Friday as he flew from Albany, N.Y., to Minneapolis, where he picked up endorsements from former vice president Walter Mondale, and Senator Paul Wellstone, who had supported Bradley.

Gore marched in Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade, and then traveled to Houston. He moved closer toward mathematically wrapping up the Democratic nomination by winning Michigan caucuses, and he was a likely winner in the Arizona primary.

Gore's meeting with Ventura followed an article in the Los Angeles Times on Friday that cited questionable actions by Gore, President Clinton, and Hillary Rodham Clinton in raising funds for the president's reelection in 1996.

The article was based on a report, prepared by Charles G. LaBella, a former Justice Department investigator, that had been kept secret for two years. It suggested that Gore, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton had engaged ''in a pattern of conduct worthy of investigation by an independent counsel.''

Gore came under scrutiny after a fund-raiser in April 1996 at a Buddhist temple in California, and after reports that he had placed fund-raising calls from his White House office. Attorney General Janet Reno ultimately decided not to seek an independent counsel, a decision that Republicans have criticized as showing favoritism toward top officials.

Bush seized on the article Friday, calling on Gore to ''clear up what role he played in raising money from the White House,'' and saying the report ''raises troubling questions about whether the vice president misled federal investigators by testifying he did not recall fund-raising meetings, even though new evidence now shows he actively participated in those meetings.''

Gore, who has not directly responded to the leaked LaBella report, tried yesterday to seize the offensive on campaign finance reform. McCain and Bradley used the issue to some effect before they dropped out of the presidential race on Thursday. And Bush and Gore now are trying to attract their supporters.

Standing next to Ventura, Gore accused Bush of being the only one of the four major candidates not to support campaign finance reform.

Gore insisted that he had talked about campaign finances throughout the primary campaign, but that his views had been drowned out by McCain and Bradley.

Gore said he now wants to ''raise that banner higher, not only because of the obvious political reason that I want to give a home for those voters who were strongly supporting Senator McCain and Senator Bradley because of that issue - I acknowledge that's part of what's going on here - but also because I believe in it, and because I was advocating it before they dropped out of the race, and because I advocated it 23 years ago in my very first term in the United States Congress.''

Ventura arrived for the breakfast meeting in Gore's 24th-floor suite saying his only expectation was ''food.'' He left after coming to the vice president's defense on campaign finance reform.

He suggested that it was unfair to criticize Gore for 1996 lapses when he was playing by the rules, which he said needed to be changed. ''You got to play the game - the old cliche - the hands you're dealt and play within the game that everybody can play in,'' he said.