Where Have You Gone, Walter Mondale?

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Former Vice President Walter Mondale speaks to Senator Wellstone's supporters

Whoever thought Walter Mondale would get another chance to save the Democrats? Probably no one, least of all Mondale himself. But almost 20 years after the erstwhile presidential candidate's crushing defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan, the 74-year-old Mondale is once again in the headlines. The renewed interest is borne out of tragedy: He has emerged as the Democrats' top choice to replace the late Sen. Paul Wellstone on next week's Minnesota ballot, following the plane crash that killed Wellstone, his wife and their daughter last Friday.

While Mondale won't make his decision official for another day or two (and the Democrats won't officially ask him until Wednesday), people connected with the race — as well as Mondale's friends and political advisors — concede the former Vice President is "likely" to take over Wellstone's spot. The late senator's sons have reportedly asked Mondale personally to consider filling the void left by their father's death. Other potential candidates include state Supreme Court justice Alan Page, state attorney general Mike Hatch and Skip Humphrey, former state attorney general and son of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. (The candidate who takes Wellstone's place will face a short campaign: By Wednesday, only six days will remain before the November 5 elections.)

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If he does take on the job, Mondale will face Republican Norm Coleman, the former St. Paul mayor who had been trading jibes with Wellstone up until the Senator's death. Even in a midterm election year marked by tight contests and a battle for razor-thin margins of power in the U.S. House and Senate, this race was particularly close — a fact that is not expected to change if Mondale takes over, although Democrats hope the former Veep's sentimental value (and name recognition) could tilt things in their favor.

But exactly what kind of name recognition does Mondale carry? While its very mention still sends shivers of dread down the spines of loyal Democrats who remember his dismal showing in the 1984 presidential campaign, Mondale's fellow Minnesotans have had ample time — and opportunity — to disengage such negative connotations. After all, there are plenty of voters in Minnesota who barely remember the '84 campaign, but who know from their parents and grandparents that Mondale, like Wellstone, is a reminder of what the Democratic Party once stood for. And that may be exactly why state party leaders see him as the ideal replacement.

Mondale served in the Senate from 1964 to 1976, when he became Jimmy Carter's presidential running mate, and then Vice President. A Democrat from back when the party hewed to the left on most social issues, Mondale is likely to pick up Wellstone's liberal banner as his own. Then again, that may be pure speculation based on his prior voting record: His most recent political tour of duty was as President Clinton's ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996, and while Mondale has remained active on the Minnesota political landscape, his positions on current issues are not widely known.

And then there's the personality factor: While Minnesota proved a remarkably safe haven for Wellstone's unabashedly leftist ideology, many voters have said in recent days that they voted for the senator's passion rather than for his politics. Mondale, on the other hand, is not exactly known for his passion — none that has manifested itself in public, anyway — so it's not clear whether his presumed liberalism will prove as palatable to voters as his predecessor's did. Indeed, Norm Coleman and the Republicans are hoping the ideas that sounded relatively fresh coming from Wellstone will seem outdated and musty when voiced by Walter Mondale.