On the surface, Minnesota's Senate race is an old-fashioned grudge match. Delve a little deeper, and you'll see an unofficial referendum on Minnesota's reputation itself.
Next week at the polls, incumbent Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone faces a stiff challenge from conservative Republican Rudy Boschwitz, whom Senator Wellstone unseated six years ago in an upset.
But while this race clearly plays a large part in the strategies of both parties over control of Congress, it also hinges on whether voters will embrace, or reject, the progressive social policies that have made the state a bastion for liberalism going back to the heyday of the late Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.
Wellstone, a former political science professor at Carleton College, has defended welfare and campaign-finance reform. He is a product of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, a progressive alliance that Humphrey forged in the 1940s between miners on Minnesota's Iron Range, small farmers from the prairies, and industrial workers in the Twin Cities.
Mr. Boschwitz, meanwhile, is the classic American success story. As a young boy, he fled Nazi Germany with his parents and later built a chain of home-improvement stores into a business empire. He supports tax cuts, workfare, and a reduction of government's role in people's lives.
Wellstone's tenuous lead
Polls show Wellstone has a slight lead, winning the endorsement of labor unions, farmers, and the state's largest newspaper in Minneapolis. Boschwitz has won the backing of small-business organizations and the rival metro newspaper in St. Paul. Wellstone is a favorite of women voters, while Boschwitz holds a decisive edge among white males.
For Wellstone to win, he must solidly carry traditional Democratic strongholds such as the Iron Range to offset the strength of Boschwitz in southern regions of the state. The Twin Cities are literally up for grabs.
Both campaigns admit their candidates approach the role of government with distinctly different ideological models in mind.
"Wellstone counts compassion by the number of people served on welfare," says Jon Lerner, Boschwitz's campaign manager. "Boschwitz is one of those who supports workfare. He is prepared to take the tough steps to break multigenerational poverty in this country."
"I think Boschwitz is going to win the race," says Barbara Carlson, a popular but controversial radio commentator who has invited the candidates to debate their positions from the confines of her hot tub.
Many Minnesotans blame Democrats for the state's high tax rate, she adds, which underwrites some of the most progressive welfare codes in the nation.
"Republicans have succeeded in pinning Wellstone with the label of being in favor of welfare instead of workfare," notes Ms. Carlson, the former wife of Minnesota's Gov. Arne Carlson (R). "I would have said six months ago that Wellstone was a shoo-in, but things have changed."
Any change in perception has likely come from a barrage of negative TV ads unleashed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee that lambasted Wellstone for his "embarrassingly liberal" stances on everything from crime to welfare.
Yet the ads might also have backfired. A recent poll suggests that Boschwitz has lost ground because of voter disgust with the tone of his ads. Boschwitz says he has no responsibility for ads sponsored by the senatorial committee.
Boschwitz strategists concede that Wellstone has a potent army of grass-roots volunteers going door to door to encourage citizens to vote. As with other races, Democrats know that in Minnesota they fare better when there is a large voter turnout. In the final campaign, many Democrats will remind citizens of Hubert Humphrey, who gave Minnesota a platform as a US senator and later as a presidential candidate who narrowly lost to Richard Nixon in 1968.
Drawing similarities between Humphrey and Wellstone is warranted, says Hubert "Skip" Humphrey IV, the legendary politician's son and now Minnesota's firebrand attorney general.
Just like the DFL in Humphrey's time, Minnesota's voice of progressive politics allows for a broad range of views under a broad tent, he adds. "This business of him [Wellstone] being called too liberal is nonsense."
"If you think that being too liberal means raising the minimum wage, advocating health care for everyone, protecting the environment, taking on the tobacco industry, enacting campaign-finance reform, and putting more cops on the streets," he adds, "then guess what? That's what Minnesotans want."