- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2002

It is one of the closest, and most observed political contests of 2002. To repeat the exhortational spin of both parties this year, it is a race that could determine who controls the U.S. Senate in the next term, and thus the agenda of foreign and domestic policy, not to mention the outcome of President Bush's judicial nominees. Of course, any of about eight Senate races are being hyped in this manner, but only one, the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota, has risen from the frantic and banal language of a modern American political campaign into a theatrical performance piece pitting fundamental American myths and values against each other as it they were a contest of mudwrestling demigods.
Paul Wellstone is a two-term senator, a populist Democrat who welcomes the epithet of being the most liberal member of the Senate. He was first elected in 1990, after a scandal caused the Republican nominee for governor to resign less than two weeks before the election. In the ensuing chaos, the popular GOP incumbent senator, well ahead in the polls, committed a last-minute political blunder, and Mr. Wellstone, hitherto considered a sacrificial candidate, was hurtled virtually overnight into unexpected victory. In 1996, in a rematch between the two, Mr. Wellstone won re-election the old-fashioned way, with an effective campaign that overwhelmed his opponent. In that election, Mr. Wellstone promised his second term would be his last.
Norm Coleman is a former Democrat who became a Republican in 1997 just in time to become the GOP nominee for governor. A two-term mayor of the the state capital city, St. Paul, Mr. Coleman had been a pragmatic, pro-life political figure whose career had been blocked by the pro-choice majority which dominated the Democratic Party organization. It appeared that Mr. Coleman was on his way to winning the 1998 gubernatorial race when a former professional wrestler named Jesse Ventura inserted himself into the race as a third-party candidate. Gaining momentum in the final weeks of the campaign, Mr. Ventura won an amazing upset over Mr. Coleman and the Democratic candidate. Mr. Coleman, having already turned a declining St. Paul around, went back to being mayor, and achieved some of his greatest accomplishments in the renaissance of the city.
As the 2002 political season approached, Mr. Wellstone decided he would break his pledge and run for another term, citing the importance of the Democrats to keep their majority. Mr. Coleman, nurturing a desire to run again for governor, announced for that office. Poll numbers, however, indicated that Mr. Wellstone was in trouble. President Bush, at this point, intervened, and asked him to run for the Senate instead. After initial reluctance, Mr. Coleman agreed, and the race was on.
Paul Wellstone, a gadfly populist college professor in the 1970s and 1980s, had been a dependable figure of the left-wing of the Democratic Party, consistently proclaiming class-warfare rhetoric, denouncing large corporations, defending labor unions, promoting new and expanded social programs, and calling for significantly lower defense spending. In his 1990 campaign, a shoestring, grassroots effort, he presented these views on the stump, and through some clever and humorous TV ads. When attacked as a liberal in 1996, he refused to back-off, and made a strong restatement of his political ideology.
Although perhaps a majority of Minnesota voters did not share all of these views, his obvious sincerity and his constancy of position won him re-election. In 2002, he has been further challenged, this time by international events as well, and, keeping to his own record and convictions, has announced his opposition to Mr. Bush's policy in Iraq, just as the president and the country seem poised for a crucial military effort there. At the same time, Mr. Wellstone has contrasted himself with his opponent by advocating a new direction in social spending policy, new government programs and (as his critics contend) inevitably higher taxes. Although it is doubtful that a majority of Minnesotans agree with all such views, Mr. Wellstone has twice been elected to the Senate by clearly and forthrightly espousing them.
Norm Coleman's great success in St. Paul is not seriously questioned, although some of his critics (including Mr. Wellstone) do question its long-term viability. His record of getting things done has, in fact, become the theme of his senate campaign. Conceding that Mr. Wellstone is a sincere and well-meaning man, Mr. Coleman argues that the senator is primarily a rhetorical figure who neither creates important new legislation nor brings back the "bacon" to the state. Mr. Coleman has said that he strongly supports Mr. Bush in Iraq, especially after the president went to the U.N. and Congress for support, and has criticized Mr. Wellstone for voting against most legislation for defense expenditures.
Mr. Coleman's judgment on this issue seems to be supported by a majority of Minnesotans, who also by a large margin express support for Mr. Bush. While Mr. Coleman attempts to raise defense issues with the voters, Mr. Wellstone is trying to raise issues about health insurance and Social Security. In this, their campaigns resemble campaigns across the country. But this year's Senate contest in Minnesota has grown beyond these issues. Although Mr. Wellstone has the support of several important constituencies in the state, including labor union leaders, most teachers, blacks and other minority groups, public employees, and the liberal community in general, he has been elected in the past, more on his sincerity, his constancy to his ideology, and his speaking out nationally on issues affecting the poor in this country and in the so-called Third World.
Mr. Coleman, on the other hand, has abandoned the rhetoric of his 1998 campaign, and is running both on his achievements as mayor,and on policies that probably more voters in the state support. If he is successful this year, it would likely occur because his political judgment and his record of performance are more important to voters than his party-switching and his changed policy views. Mr. Coleman has adroitly turned his anti-Vietnam War youth and his Democratic past into a critique of Mr. Wellstone as an inflexible ideologue who does not adapt to new conditions. In one of the campaign's more memorable moments,speaking to the GOP state convention earlier this year, Mr. Coleman, after echoing ironically the 1992 Clinton-Gore line, "It's time for him to go," broke out into his own raspy rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times They are a-Changin' " and electrified the crowd.
Both Mr. Coleman and Mr. Wellstone are outstanding public speakers, although they have different styles. Both are charismatic as campaigners, and enjoy the passionate affection of their supporters. But, in addition, in this uncertain time of national crisis, their personalities and political histories represent more than the individual issues they debate and describe in such different terms. More than in any other race in the country in 2002, they confront the voter of their state as the personification of characters of dramatically contrasting natures, i.e., sincerity and constancy versus judgment and performance.
What does Minnesota want in 2002? A senator who always speaks from his heart, whose views are predictably populist, and who satisfies a sense of guilt and compassion that most affluent Americans feel about those who are struggling in society? Or a senator who is more likely to create new legislation and get it passed, who will put the state's pragmatic interests back into the national agenda, and whose political judgment more often will reflect the views of a majority of voters?
In a race that gyrates back and forth, with one or the other leading by a few points, this race defies traditional prognostication. Outside Minnesota, this race is just another crucial vote in the contest to control the U.S. Senate. To voters in the state, however, it is an archetypical dramatic film of personalities and values, of choices between them, and the great consequences, here and in perhaps the world that their vote will bring.

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

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