- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

ST. PAUL, Minn. All the Senate candidates met here last night for a prime-time TV debate except former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who said he couldn't make it.

Three days after Mr. Mondale agreed to replace Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone on the ballot, Mr. Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, still had not agreed to a time and place to debate his Republican opponent, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

Mr. Mondale's absence from a debate that Mr. Wellstone agreed to many weeks ago angered Republican state officials, who charged that he was trying to avoid a debate and "play out the clock" with only three more days remaining in a race that both sides said was too close to call.

"The guy's got to earn it. This is not an entitlement. Part of earning a U.S. Senate seat means debating your opponent, especially a candidate who hasn't put himself up for elective office in decades," said Bill Walsh, spokesman for the Minnesota Republican Party.

Republican officials here say their party's tracking polls show that "the race is tightening" and that Mr. Mondale may have peaked soon after he was officially named the Democratic candidate. Mr. Coleman's campaign headquarters has been besieged by phone calls from volunteers and pledges of campaign contributions since Democrats held a memorial service Tuesday night for of Mr. Wellstone that turned into a raucous rally for Mr. Mondale.

"In the last three days, lines of voters have come by to pick up more than 3,000 'Democrats for Coleman' yard signs," a Coleman campaign official said.

Last night's debate was sponsored by KSTP, Channel 5, in St. Paul and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Mr. Coleman participated, along with two third-party candidates, Jim Moore of the Independence Party and Ray Tricomo of the Green Party.

Tom Hauser, KSTP's chief political reporter, who moderated the debate, said that it appeared that Mr. Mondale was "playing a Rose Garden strategy" for the remainder of the campaign. Presidents who get into political trouble have sometimes used managed events in the White House Rose Garden to promote their image, while avoiding outside public debate that raises questions about their policies and positions.

Declining the invitation, Mr. Mondale told Mr. Hauser that "I have to get around the rest of the state so that they can get a chance to hear me and what I have in mind, and then we'll have a debate."

"I've always agreed to debate, but this is a very unusual circumstance. I don't like it at all," he said.

But Republicans said that if Mr. Mondale needed to talk to voters, statewide television was the most efficient way to do it. "He would reach far more voters on TV than in a town meeting," said Ginny Wolfe, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Officials in both camps said there were discussions about holding a debate and that Mr. Mondale's advisers wanted to hold one on Monday, the final day of the campaign.

"We're talking to them, and they are talking to us. There will be a debate," a Mondale campaign official said last night.

But Coleman strategists were opposed to holding a debate on Monday, the day before voters go to the polls, because it would not give voters and news organizations time to absorb, analyze and critique what Mr. Mondale said. "We've never heard of a debate being held the day before Election Day," said a Coleman campaign official.

The NBC television affiliate here also has offered to hold a debate this weekend, with "Meet the Press" interviewer Tim Russert serving as the moderator, an offer Mr. Coleman has already accepted. But there has been no response from the Mondale campaign.

Last night, Mr. Coleman said that, if he is elected, he would "reach across the aisle" in the Senate to work for energy independence, Social Security reform and a prescription-drug benefits plan.

Mr. Coleman, a Democrat-turned-Republican, repeated his campaign theme that "the future is now" and that the old politics of rigid partisanship and gridlock had to be overcome by problem-solvers who can move legislation through.

Notably, despite months of Democratic attacks accusing him of backing Social Security privatization, Mr. Coleman defended President Bush's idea to let younger workers invest some of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds to build richer retirement savings. But he said he would "not vote for anything that cuts one dime" from what beneficiaries have paid into the system or what they have been promised.

Mr. Coleman has been striking a generational theme in the final days of the race, saying that this campaign "is about the future," thus implying that Mr. Mondale, 74 who hasn't held elective office in 22 years represented the past.

Mr. Coleman, 53, has been flying around the state in a whirlwind, final round of campaign appearances, in sharp contrast to Mr. Mondale's more sedate schedule of two or three events a day.

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