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Candidate Hopes Hard Work Pays Off

GOP's Coleman takes it up a notch in the final days of Minnesota's U.S. Senate race against venerable Democrat Walter Mondale.

November 02, 2002|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

DULUTH, Minn — DULUTH, Minn.-- How do you run against a political legend?

In the case of Norm Coleman, the Republican who suddenly finds himself up against Walter F. Mondale in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race, the answer is: Work harder.

On Friday, Coleman was up and on the phone to his campaign staff at 4:45 a.m. By 6, while on his way to Holman Field in St. Paul, he was conducting a cell-phone interview with a radio station. An hour later, he was boarding a small plane on his way to campaign stops in four cities.

Since Wednesday, he has logged nearly 2,000 miles. On Friday, he traveled from Alexandria, home of a tall Viking statue named Big Ole, to Hermantown, a community on the outskirts of Duluth, for a rally that featured Vice President Dick Cheney and former Minnesota Viking football coach Bud Grant.

Before the night ended, he was in Minneapolis for a televised debate, though it was not quite the encounter he would have preferred.

Coleman squared off with the Senate nominees of the Green and Independence parties--but not Mondale, who became the Democratic candidate after Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed Oct. 25 in a plane crash.

Asked about the daunting challenge of facing Mondale, who before serving as vice president in the Carter administration represented Minnesota in the Senate for 12 years, Coleman said, "I'm just trying to outwork him."

He really has little other choice of strategies. The former mayor of St. Paul finds himself days before the election in a peculiar political place, coping not only with Mondale but also with an outpouring of public sympathy for Wellstone.

" 'Win one for Wellstone' is a hard slogan to beat," said John J. Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "Coleman not only has to defeat an experienced politician, he also has to overcome a ghost."

Pitney added: "Coleman had been running against Wellstone as an out-of-touch leftist. Now he must run against someone who personifies the establishment. He started by running against the 1960s. Now he has to run against the 1950s."

The race between Wellstone and Coleman had been tight, and all this year it had been viewed as one of the most crucial in determining which party controls the Senate. Now it has become a nationally watched political drama.

"This is unimaginable," Coleman said. "You just kind of deal with it the best you can."

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Coleman, 53, a Democrat turned Republican, acknowledges the steep climb he faces against "Mount Rushmore," a term he used for the 74-year-old Mondale earlier this week.

But Coleman insists he is not discouraged. "It's going to be a close race," he said.

He noted Friday that he has been campaigning for two years; Mondale has been at it for two days, since he was officially named Wellstone's replacement by state Democrats on Wednesday.

GOP leaders clearly have not given up on Coleman. First Lady Laura Bush will follow Cheney into the state today, and President Bush will campaign for Coleman on Sunday.

On the campaign trail Friday, Coleman was encouraged by large turnouts, especially at a packed rally of more than 2,000 supporters in Hermantown, where he shared the spotlight with Cheney.

Coleman, in his speeches throughout the day, made a point of mourning Wellstone's passing. But he also pounded away at a campaign theme that has gained greater emphasis since Mondale's entry into the race.

"The future is now," he said repeatedly. "We can't go back to the way it was."

He never once, however, mentioned Mondale by name. He also said he has asked national GOP officials not to air a television ad picturing Mondale and President Carter and flashing the such words as "gasoline rationing," "double-digit inflation" and "massive defense cuts."

Asked by a reporter if he had ever voted for Mondale, Coleman dodged the question. "That was so long ago I can hardly remember," he said.

Meanwhile, Mondale boarded a bus and conducted town hall meetings on Friday in Mankato and Rochester before heading north to Duluth.

He passed on Friday's debate because, an aide said, he wanted to spend more time talking with voters.

The aide said Mondale is willing to debate Coleman, but no arrangements have been worked out.

Coleman appeared comfortable working the crowds Friday. And he is hoping that as Tuesday's vote approaches, more and more Minnesotans will echo the thoughts of Mary Freeman, 79, who drove 60 miles to hear Coleman at a campaign stop in Bemidji.

Freeman said that, although she respects Mondale, he is the "same old, same old."

'I don't have anything to say against Mondale," she said. "He's a nice man. But he's had his day."

At the rally in Alexandria, Tracy Weaver, 45, a pastor, said he believes that Democrats may have damaged themselves by turning Wellstone's memorial service earlier this week into a political rally.

"I feel so disappointed by the way Paul's memorial service was handled," he said. "In a sense, I wish they would have let the Republicans handle the memorial service. They would have honored him more respectfully than the Democrats did."

As he barnstormed the state, Coleman brought along his wife, Laurie, his son, Jacob, 16, and his father, Norman Sr., 78. Coleman rarely talked about issues in detail. But that is a difficult task for a man on the run.

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