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Election 2002

Minnesotans Wait Through the Night for Senate Outcome

GOP's Coleman leads Democrat Mondale with many precincts yet to be counted. Heavy turnout and late ballot change delay count.

November 06, 2002|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The most unusual and perhaps most-watched Senate race in the country brought out record numbers of voters Tuesday, which combined with a hastily reworked ballot to keep the outcome a mystery as of early this morning.

Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of this city, led Democrat Walter F. Mondale, a former senator and vice president under Jimmy Carter. But many of the largest precincts had not finished counting, several of them Democratic strongholds. Independence Party candidate Jim Moore picked up most of the remaining votes.

Mondale was drafted just over a week ago after the incumbent, Democrat Paul Wellstone, died Oct. 25 in a plane crash along with his wife, daughter, three staff members and two pilots. Election officials created separate ballots for the Senate race -- ballots that had to be counted by hand.

"It's going to take a very long time to count these votes," Coleman told reporters Tuesday evening. "I'm tempted to go and rent 'Spider-Man' and watch the movie. And when it's done we'll probably still be counting votes."

"In Minnesota we might have broken all records for voter participation," Mondale told supporters as some precincts reported turnouts of upward of 85%. Election officials may have to count the ballots again if the final tally is close. The hand count and other problems, including lines so long that polls were forced to stay open late and reports of some polling stations running out of ballots, raised the possibility that this race -- like the 2000 presidential contest in Florida -- could be headed for the courts.

The winning candidate would take the seat held by Wellstone, the Senate's lone-wolf liberal, a man who seemed happiest when he represented the 1 in a 99-1 vote. He was locked in a bitter, often negative fight with Coleman, 53, a former Democrat who switched parties in 1996 while he was mayor. Coleman decided to run for the Senate at the urging of President Bush.

Wellstone lagged behind Coleman for much of the campaign but had pulled even when he died, according to most polls. Mondale stepped in and, in a few days of relatively leisurely stumping, pulled to within striking distance of Coleman, who had been on the campaign trail for 15 months.

"Not everyone could have fit the bill," said Robin Hellmer, a Mondale volunteer, as she helped fortify other helpers with gyros and sodas Tuesday afternoon at the Union Labor Center in Minneapolis. "He's Walter Mondale. Look at his credentials. He's perfect."

Mondale, a former ambassador to Japan in addition to having served as senator and vice president, was viewed by many here as the only person who could seriously challenge Coleman so late in the race. He even came with his own advertising; "Walter F. Mondale Hall" is spelled out in giant gold letters across the main building at the University of Minnesota Law School, right in downtown Minneapolis.

A portrait, taken when he was vice president, smiles down at students in the common area.

"I would rather have a good representative for our state than someone who wins because they campaigned for a long time," Rebecca Berg, 26, a third-year student who had just cast her vote for Mondale, said Tuesday.

Berg's choice was clearly that of the majority in Mondale Hall, but 27-year-old Steve Scrogham had no qualms about dismissing Minnesota's elder statesman.

"The policies Mondale proposed in the '70s are the same ones he's proposing today," said Hall before launching into a detailed argument for why the Republicans need to wrest control of the Senate. "Mondale will offer me an ideal and then tell me why it can't be achieved. Coleman will say, 'We didn't get everything we wanted, but here's what we did get.' "

The brief Mondale-versus-Coleman campaign had just two milestones. The first came when a memorial for Wellstone turned into a spirited -- some thought unseemly -- campaign-style event. The other came during their one debate, Monday, when Mondale charged hard at Coleman, who had adopted a very low-key and respectful style since Wellstone's death.

The raucous memorial, many believe, invigorated Republicans, which in turn may have charged up Democrats. Which candidate gained the most from the debate was also unclear.

"I don't know that either of them did anything during the debate that swayed those crucial undecided voters one way or the other -- and if they did, I don't know which way those undecided voters swung," said Lilly Goren, chair of the political science department at the College of St. Catherine here.

All of which contributed to heavy, perhaps record, turnouts and a spirited midterm election day.

Lines had formed at hundreds of polling stations around the state before the doors opened at 7 a.m., and many voters in the Twin Cities waited 30 minutes or more to cast their ballots.

The weather turned so nasty it thwarted what would have been Coleman's final campaign-trail push, an airborne odyssey around Minnesota that would have bucked conventional political wisdom, which says: If you haven't persuaded them by the time the polls open, you aren't going to.

With the death of Wellstone fresh in their minds, some in both camps were relieved when Coleman was grounded..

"We don't want another plane crash," said a Mondale volunteer.

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