WASHINGTON (AP) -- House Ways and Means Committee hearings don't usually generate much buzz, but Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura has a way of shaking things up when he comes to town.
Hundreds of people showed up an hour early to wait in line, then jammed into the hearing room to get a glimpse of Ventura a month ago. There also was nearly perfect attendance among the 39 committee members, a rarity.
The hearing provided a showcase for Ventura to testify at the behest of the Clinton administration for permanent normal trade relations with China, which Ventura says would provide export opportunities for his state.
The committee chairman, Bill Archer, R-Texas, gushed that Ventura ''hit a home run'' with his folksy, witty testimony.
''Bill Archer is not known for handing out bouquets for anyone,'' said Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., another committee member. ''Saying that someone hit a home run is not his style.''
''No question,'' Ramstad added, ''every time (Ventura) comes before the committee, his stature improves.''
After more than a year in office, the former professional wrestler and bodyguard for the Rolling Stones no longer is just a curiosity for Washington. He's someone with clout.
In the past month, Ventura has met with two Cabinet members -- Commerce Secretary William Daley and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. He also had dinner in April with Vice President Al Gore in Washington and met with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in Minnesota.
Ventura's popularity in Washington is based partly on his celebrity and partly on his status as the nation's leading independent politician.
''The primary season, especially on the Republican side, shows there is a substantial independent vote out there and that could be influential in the 2000 race,'' said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who advised McCain's presidential campaign.
''Who are the symbols of that? Probably John McCain first and foremost. Beyond that, Jesse Ventura -- that's who elected him.''
Former Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn., said skeptics on Capitol Hill failed to see past Ventura's celebrity when he was first elected.
''What they've discovered in the past 12 to 15 months is that he has important things to say, on issues from dairy policy to trade with China,'' said Penny, a close adviser to Ventura.
In February, Ventura visited House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, asking him to help win passage of legislation making it easier for Lao refugees who fought with U.S. troops in Vietnam to become U.S. citizens. A month later, Hyde, R-Ill., cited Ventura's interest in the bill as the committee unanimously passed it.
Ventura attributed his rising influence to who he speaks for.
''I represent where everyone wants to get to and that's the center,'' he said, ''the common, everyday central-thinking person, the centrist person, which is the majority of Americans.
''So I think that I truly represent the majority of Americans.''
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says Ventura still is more flash than substance.
''He is a celebrity,'' Mann said. ''And therefore, he gets attention when he travels, and politicians see advantages in attracting news coverage themselves when they appear with him.
''To the extent some of them think he may have some appeal among independents, there is a tendency to try to get close to him. But I don't see Washington rushing to embrace him.''
Mann said it's still not clear whether Ventura will have staying power on the national scene.
''I'm not trying to put him down,'' Mann said. ''I don't have a clue as to what his future is. I don't think any of the politicians sucking up to him now do either, but they do see short-term strategic advantage in getting close, for different reasons.''
Weber said if Ventura fails to put down ''stronger ideological roots or a broader policy agenda, then I think it will become a phenomenon of celebrity, and it will become transitory.''
Still, right now Ventura is in a position to call the shots.
Ventura noted that Gore invited him to dinner. Will he meet with the vice president's Republican rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush?
''I don't plan on meeting with anybody,'' Ventura said, lowering his already deep voice for effect. ''They meet with me.''
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