Mondale's entry energizes Minnesota race

Former presidential contender mounts bid for the Senate seat made vacant by Wellstone death.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

He has become in a few short days a sort of political rock star with silver hair. In the hagiography being written around him by Democrats, former Vice President Water Mondale, if put back in the Senate, could become the elder statesman of Capitol Hill, injecting fresh gravitas into national debates on war, taxes, international trade, and more.

But first he has to get there.

That means beating Norm Coleman, a telegenic White House-backed Republican who's a popular former mayor of St. Paul. While insiders give Mondale the edge at the moment, his victory is far from certain, particularly given that his heyday was in the 1970s.

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Indeed, in the few short days to next Tuesday, the race may pivot around what image of Mondale ultimately prevails – éminence grise or liberal anachronism?

The contest begins today in earnest, with Mondale expected to hit the hustings after getting his party's blessing last night. Mr. Coleman has already resumed his campaign with a positive message that's also laced with subtle digs at Mondale's advanced age.

In the pugnacious spirit of Senator Wellstone – the liberal "Happy Warrior" who was killed in a plane crash last week – politics in Minnesota has returned to full-throated vigor after a brief hiatus.

Democrats are pushing hard because they want to keep control of the Senate as a check against the Bush administration. Some even hope the Wellstone tragedy will spur liberal sympathizers in other states to go to the polls and tip tight races.

Republicans are loath to repeat John Ashcroft's Missouri experience in 2000. After his opponent was killed in a plane crash, he suspended his Senate campaign for 10 days – and lost.

Adding to the fervor is the zeal with which politics is conducted in this normally stoic state anyway – as was evident at the mobbed memorial service for Wellstone Tuesday night, where 20,000 people packed a college basketball arena for three hours. Several thousand more stood outside, watching the service on big screens, clapping their mitten-clad hands in the frigid night.

"This is Minnesota," said Wellstone fan and juvenile probation officer Christine Wahlstrom. "It's just a politics state."

Polls say Mondale is ahead – but tentatively. A snapshot survey out yesterday put Mondale at 47 percent to Coleman's 39 percent. But it was conducted over one day, not the usual three, and is thus considered less reliable. One GOP poll puts Mondale ahead by just two points – 45 to 43. And in this fluid political environment, polls aren't always telling.

What may be more valuable is Mondale's 24-karat name and reputation in the state. In the pantheon of Minnesota politicians, he occupies a spot nearly as vaunted as his mentor, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. That was evident when Mondale walked into the arena Tuesday. The crowd whooped far louder and stomped far harder on the concrete risers for Mondale than they did for any of the other "celebrity" visitants, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson.

Mondale does have some notable lines on his resume. He helped champion civil rights in the Senate, brought new activism to the vice presidency, picked America's first female vice-presidential candidate for a major party, and later served as ambassador to Japan.

In Washington, he would clearly be a different presence than Wellstone's grass-roots gadfly approach – perhaps more like President John Quincy Adams or Vice President Humphrey, who both returned to Congress after their executive-branch stints, analysts say.

"When Humphrey got up to speak, people knew this was someone who'd been so involved in national politics, who was in the twilight of his career, who didn't have any presidential ambitions, and so they listened," says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Mondale, he says, could "move the Senate away from the childish tantrums and overwrought bickering that have characterized it of late."

Yet first he has to deal with the state's modern demographics and politics. Mondale is vulnerable to criticism that he's a tax raiser. (He even famously admitted during the 1984 presidential race, which he lopsidedly lost, that he would boost taxes.) In a state that has become more suburban and moderate, that could hurt him.

In fact, some 57 percent of Minnesota's voters are suburbanites – many of whom voted for Independent Gov. Jesse Ventura in 1998.

On the other side, some liberals question whether Mondale would have voted – as Wellstone did – against the Iraq war resolution. "The use of force is something Mondale sees an important part of the projection of American influence in the world," says Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist.

Given the crosscurrents, Mondale may not be able do a "five-day funeral memorial" and win, says Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. "Mondale has to give people a reason to vote for him" – especially Minnesotans who are too young to have voted for him.

Republicans, meanwhile, are angling for a debate, hoping that Coleman appears youthful, vigorous, and moderate next to Mondale. Coleman has relaunched his campaign, saying Minnesotans need "someone who can work for them vigorously in this post-9/11 world" – a clear reference to Mondale's age and how much the world has changed during his respite from politics.

Coleman is a pro-business, antiabortion moderate who helped revive St. Paul. White House operatives helped engineer his Senate nomination. In a sign of how high the stakes still are, President Bush arrives Sunday to campaign for him.

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