MINNEAPOLIS-- Twelve years ago, he was a cage-rattling professor who came out of nowhere, crisscrossed the state in a battered school bus and surprised nearly everyone by winning a U.S. Senate seat. Now, Paul Wellstone rattles cages in Washington and faces a tough fight back home as he pursues a third term against an opponent hand-picked by President Bush.
Times have changed, but the bus is back, retrieved from a bus museum and spiffed up by some friendly autoworkers. Wellstone's races are always good political theater, but this one's far more.
He faces formidable opposition from former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, a Democrat-turned-Republican and polished campaigner who's running on his record of urban revival and portraying Wellstone as an ineffective ideologue. The race, one of the nation's most expensive and widely regarded as dead-even, could determine which party controls the Senate after the Nov. 5 elections.
"If it stays the way it is now, it could be decided by a few thousand votes either way," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Minnesota's Carleton College, where Wellstone once taught.
Bush and Vice President Cheney have taken a more prominent role than many of their predecessors in recruiting Senate candidates -- nowhere more conspicuously than in Minnesota.
Coleman, who narrowly lost four years ago to now-Gov. Jesse Ventura, an independent, had wanted to run again for governor this year. But Bush, convinced that Coleman had the best chance to oust Wellstone, talked him into switching races a year ago. Cheney followed up by talking Minnesota House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, R, into dropping his Senate bid and running for governor.
Bush also interceded in Georgia, where his encouragement helped persuade Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R, to challenge Sen. Max Cleland, D. The president was even more aggressive in South Dakota, where he helped talk Rep. John Thune, R, out of a gubernatorial bid and into his challenge of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, creating perhaps the nation's most closely watched Senate race.
Republicans view the Midwest -- particularly Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota -- as a land of opportunity in November's Senate campaigns. The four states' Democratic incumbents are running perilously close races in early polls and are generally being attacked by their GOP opponents as too liberal for the people they represent.
The loss of any one of these seats, unless offset by a Democratic gain elsewhere, would erase the Democrats' one-vote majority and put the Senate back under Republican control. Should that happen in Minnesota, South Dakota or Georgia, Bush may justifiably claim a big chunk of the credit.
So Wellstone, once the quintessential outsider, becomes a linchpin of the power balance in Washington. To Coleman, Wellstone is still banging on the door from the outside, creating more noise than legislation.
As he greeted a visitor in his 32nd-floor law office in a new St. Paul high-rise, Coleman pointed down to a sports arena, a science museum and the other concrete-and-glass legacies of his eight years as mayor, and he contrasted them with what he characterized as Wellstone's thin record of accomplishment.
"He's the most partisan, polarizing, ideologically driven" person in the Senate, said the hard-charging Coleman, 52. "Twelve years ago, Paul had a plan to get a prescription drug benefit (for Medicare recipients). Now he's got a plan to get a prescription drug benefit. If I was there 12 years and couldn't get a prescription drug benefit, kick me out."
At the same moment, over in Minneapolis, Wellstone, 57 -- as short and rumpled as Coleman is tall and suave -- was belting out a different tune as he accepted the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party. He listed his accomplishments, including a mental health bill recently embraced by Bush. He said the legislation "has nothing to do with left, right or center -- it has to do with trying to do well for people."
Later, in an interview, Wellstone said he's always tried to be "an outsider who's effective on the inside." He cited additional accomplishments, including a ban on gifts to lawmakers, a major provision of the new campaign finance law, and legislation dealing with health, education, homeless veterans, farmers and victims of domestic abuse and human rights violations.
As for Coleman's pledge to work across the partisan aisle to pass bills, Wellstone said he's already doing so, citing a long list of Republicans with whom he has worked on legislation, such as Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., on the mental health bill.
The election could well turn on who's more persuasive on the issue of effectiveness, especially when it comes to tangible results for Minnesota, said Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.
"Wellstone doesn't have a reputation for bringing home the bacon ... and he's facing a candidate who had that kind of reputation" in St. Paul, Jacobs said. "He's got to work on this, and it's not something that an incumbent should have to worry about at this point."
Another element in the Wellstone-Coleman equation is the state itself. Rapid suburbanization has combined with other factors -- including an influx of immigrants -- to produce a fluid and unpredictable electorate. The state is no longer the impregnable fortress of Democratic liberalism that it was in the days of Hubert Humphrey or Walter Mondale. It's not reliably Republican either.
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