- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

No citizenry, it might be rationally argued, should be subjected to the vagaries of politics and fate that have befallen the voters of Minnesota in recent years, and particularly in this year's political season.
In 1990, the Republican candidate for governor was swept up in allegations of scandal just days before the November election, and was forced to resign from his party's ticket. In the chaos that resulted, another GOP candidate was put on the ballot in his place. This proved so unsettling that two incumbents, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) governor and the GOP U.S. senator, were narrowly upset. (The surprise winner in the Senate race was Paul Wellstone.)
In 1998, the third-party candidacy of Jesse Ventura, in the final days of the campaign, went from single digits in the polls to a stunning upset.
In 2002, with control of the U.S. House and Senate at stake, and the governorship now in the hands of a centrist third party, Minnesotans have once again been subjected to a disturbing finish to an already bitter campaign.
Ten days before the election, Paul Wellstone died in a tragic plane accident, and brought the entire political campaign season to a halt for five days. The DFL scrambled to find a replacement on the ticket, and polling showed that only one DFLer in the state would be competitive on Nov. 5 Walter F. Mondale. To the surprise of many, Mr. Mondale, 74, agreed to have his name placed on the ballot.
But a week before the election, the DFL staged a much-publicized memorial service for Wellstone on the campus of the University of Minnesota. It was to be a tribute to Wellstone and a non-partisan event, with many Senate colleagues of both parties attending, as well as numerous political figures, including Mr. Ventura. Yet, Vice President Dick Cheney (who is also the president of the Senate) was asked by memorial organizers not to come. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott was booed as he entered, as reportedly were others. After beginning the program with appropriate eulogies, Mr. Wellstone's campaign treasurer then gave what was the most inappropriate speech in memory, causing Messrs. Ventura, Lott and others to leave.
More importantly, this spectacle provoked a powerful revulsion all over the state, not only among Republicans who had been respectfully sharing the mourning for the late senator and his family, but also in many DFLers who found the opportunism in very bad taste. DFLer Fred Gates, the late Hubert Humphrey's last chief of staff (who had personally organized the St. Paul funeral of Mr. Humphrey in 1978, which is still regarded as the exemplary model of a Minnesota memorial event), said after watching the Wellstone service, "I was deeply embarrassed by what I heard."
Almost instantly, an angry flood of calls, e-mails and editorials poured onto the Minnesota political landscape, and continues unabated, now days later. Some have suggested it may have been the turning point of the then-still-formally unannounced Mondale Senate campaign. Until then, conventional wisdom held that Mr. Mondale, with his name recognition and his stature, would easily win the race. But even before the memorial service debacle, polls were indicating that the contest between Messrs. Coleman and Mondale might be competitive.
By inciting the Republican base throughout the state, the outcome of this race has become very hard to predict. Mr. Coleman, who has handled the tragedy of his opponent with genuine sensitivity (at the moment Wellstone's plane crashed, Mr. Coleman was in an identical private plane less than hour away, a plane carrying not only Mr. Coleman but members of his family), has resumed his campaign. The events of the past week have seemed to give Mr. Coleman a gravitas he never seemed to have in his campaigns before this.
Mr. Mondale briefly entertained the possibility of running again for the Senate in 1990, but ultimately did not run. That was the year that Mr. Wellstone first ran for the senate. According to Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College (where he was a colleague of Mr. Wellstone's), Mr. Wellstone made numerous speeches calling himself the candidate of the future, contrasting himself with an unnamed candidate of the past who, Mr. Schier says, was Mr. Mondale.
If the race is very close, (last minute polls show Mr. Coleman moving ahead), several factors could tip the balance. New absentee ballots have been ordered, but thousands who cannot get them in time, and who voted for Wellstone, will not have their votes counted in the Senate race. The long-nurtured antipathy to Mr. Mondale on the far left of the Wellstone base could move a few thousand votes from the DFL to the populist Green Party candidate. Mr. Ventura's very negative reaction to the Wellstone memorial event could move some Independence Party votes to Mr. Coleman. On the other hand, moderate DFLers who were not planning to vote for Mr. Wellstone, may come back to Mr. Mondale, the traditional consensus liberal.
The results in Minnesota may not be known until next Wednesday or later. That is because a new separate paper ballot had to be printed for the Senate race. This ballot will have to be counted by hand, and it has been suggested that it might be counted first before all the other races. This would mean that no meaningful results would be available until Wednesday morning, and possibly no final results until late Wednesday or Thursday.
With exquisite uncertainty, the vagaries of politics and fate have once more descended on the state of Minnesota.

Barry Casselman is the national political correspondent for the Preludium News Service.

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