Death on the Campaign Trail

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BELOVED: After a rocky start, Wellstone adjusted to the Senate's courtliness and befriended his ideological foes

Death on the Campaign Trail A plane crashes, a Democratic Senator dies and suddenly both parties must readjust their strategies for winning control of the Senate Josh Tyrangiel In 1990, a few weeks after Paul Wellstone — a wiry 5-ft. 5-in. ex-college professor, liberal ideologue, professional agitator and extreme long shot — unseated an incumbent Senator in an election no one thought he could win, he sat down for breakfast with one of the few Establishment politicians he genuinely admired. Fellow Minnesotan and former Vice President Walter Mondale congratulated Wellstone on the upset but warned that the aggressiveness Wellstone had shown on the campaign trail (he starred in a series of Roger & Me-inspired ads in which he stalked his opponent) might not go over well on Capitol Hill. "Remember," said Mondale, "you have six years in the first term, not six days. Don't be so impatient, charging into everything."

Wellstone didn't hear a word. As Senator-elect in his first month, Wellstone said of new colleague Jesse Helms, "I have detested him since I was 19." Then, on his first trip to the White House, on the eve of the Gulf War, Wellstone pelted President George H.W. Bush with antiwar arguments until Bush famously asked, "Who is this chickens---?"

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Over 12 years and nearly two Senate terms, Wellstone never wavered in his convictions, but he gradually adjusted his style to the courtly atmosphere of the Senate. Just how well he had adapted was evident in the hours after his campaign plane crashed two miles from a small airport last Friday 175 miles north of Minneapolis. (Also aboard were Wellstone's wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, three campaign-staff members and two pilots. There were no survivors.) "Despite the marked contrast between Paul's and my views on matters of government and politics," said Helms, his onetime nemesis, "he was my friend. And I was his."

Wellstone had been locked in a tight re-election campaign against Republican challenger Norm Coleman and had begun to pull away in recent weeks, in part because this year's chapter in the Iraq saga provided Wellstone with an opportunity to remind Minnesotans that his maverick streak remained as sharp as ever. As the only vulnerable incumbent to vote against the resolution that would give President Bush war powers, Wellstone told the Senate, "Acting now on our own might be a sign of our power, but acting sensibly and in a measured way in concert with our allies ... would be a sign of our strength." Soon after, private G.O.P. polls predicted that Wellstone would be re-elected.

Senators on both sides of the aisle broke down on Friday as they talked about their idealistic fallen comrade, but it wasn't long before they returned to the cold calculus of midterm elections. With Wellstone's death, the Senate is divided 49 to 49 to 1. If Coleman were to win, he would fill the vacancy immediately, and Republicans would suddenly have an advantage that could help them push through President Bush's struggling Homeland Security bill before the new year. Optimism, though, was hard to find among G.O.P. officials, who fear a possible repeat of what one G.O.P. Senator called the "Jean Carnahan syndrome." Two years ago, Carnahan's husband, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash while campaigning. His name remained on the ballot, and the deceased Carnahan defeated Republican incumbent John Ashcroft. Jean Carnahan was then appointed to fill his seat for two years.

Minnesota officials disagree about the exact legal steps that follow a candidate's death. Some argue that the law would allow a repeat of the Carnahan scenario. But the Democrats are apparently not inclined to wait for such wrangling to be resolved. The party can name a replacement candidate no more than seven days after Wellstone's death and no fewer than four days before the Nov. 5 general election. And all indications point to a new candidate. With neither of Wellstone's two sons (Mark, 30, and David, 37) interested in filling their father's seat, Democratic officials phoned former Vice President Mondale on Friday afternoon and pleaded with him to run. Republicans fear that he is precisely the kind of party patriarch who could ride the coattails of Wellstone's legacy to victory. "Politics is all about emotions," says a Republican Senator. "Paul was beloved, and with his death he'll be even more beloved. If the Democrats pick a strong candidate, taking this seat could be tough."

Mondale, 74, hasn't said whether he will accept, but he was highly visible in the hours after Wellstone's death. Speaking at a news conference with Senator Edward Kennedy, Mondale said, "If Paul were here, he would want us to think about one thing, and that is to carry on the fight that he led with such brilliance and courage over all of these years. And Paul and Sheila, we intend to do that."

Wellstone's tragedy may help the Democrats keep Minnesota, but what twists of fate create, they can also spirit away. It was Carnahan's unprecedented posthumous victory, along with Jim Jeffords' unexpected party switch, that gave the Democrats their microscopic hold on the Senate in the first place and allowed Tom Daschle to stall, water down and occasionally even block key parts of George W. Bush's agenda. But that margin will be tough to maintain. The Democrats' first problem is Carnahan. Sensing that she is vulnerable, Republicans made her one of their top targets, and they have poured millions of dollars into her state over the past month in an effort to take back the seat. The G.O.P. has history on its side: a living Democrat hasn't won a Senate seat from Missouri in 22 years.

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