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In Minnesota, Mondale Leaves Politics Quietly

He's dispatched in Senate race by Norm Coleman, who adds to gains made by the GOP.

November 07, 2002|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale came out of retirement for just one week before quietly and humbly returning Wednesday, ushered back by a respectful and even somber Sen.-elect Norm Coleman, a 53-year-old Republican who has been down many times in his political life only to rise again.

As the strategists and pundits tried to make sense of the oddest, saddest Senate race in the country -- pondering why traditionally left-leaning Minnesotans contributed Tuesday to the Republicans' gains nationwide -- the loser and the winner alike spoke to supporters with near reverence.

"In what is obviously the end of my last campaign, I want to say to Minnesotans: 'You've always treated me decently, you've always listened to me ... and now you've made your decision,' " said an emotional Mondale, 74. "We respect it. I am so proud of this state and so proud of its people."

A few hours later, across town at the capital, it was the 53-year-old victor's turn. He too spoke in a tone befitting a campaign that was changed irrevocably when his first opponent, Sen. Paul Wellstone, was killed in a plane crash.

"I am here at a time of almost indescribable joy ... but also at a time of sadness," Coleman said. "We suffered, in the midst of this most incredible campaign, the loss of our senator.

"I will go more than halfway," he continued, "to make sure that no one feels disenfranchised by the results" of Tuesday.

After Wellstone died, along with his wife, daughter and five others, and Mondale agreed to fill in, election officials were forced to create a separate ballot for the Senate race, and then count those ballots by hand. The race remained close throughout the wee hours, and it became clear only about 5 a.m. Wednesday that Coleman had thwarted Mondale's charge.

The race was frequently compared to two others -- the New Jersey contest between former U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat, and Republican Doug Forrester; and the 2000 Senate race in Missouri in which Democratic candidate Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash but was elected anyway over Republican incumbent John Ashcroft. Carnahan's wife, Jean, was appointed to take her late husband's place.

In fact, the Minnesota race was very different.

Carnahan had ridden to Washington on what analysts came to call a "sympathy vote," and, with only a two-year appointment, failed to make her mark. She was defeated Tuesday by Republican Jim Talent, a former congressman.

The Lautenberg comparison was more fair, observers agreed, in that the 78-year-old Lautenberg is a well-known former senator who stepped in when Sen. Robert Torricelli bowed out of the contest as he came under scrutiny for campaign finance discrepancies.

Although Lautenberg had slightly more than three weeks to campaign, that was still three times as long as Mondale had. And Lautenberg faced a virtual unknown, Republican businessman Doug Forrester, while Democrat Mondale faced in Coleman a veteran politician who had built a formidable network of volunteers.

"Coleman had been campaigning for Senate for two years, and for two years before that he'd campaigned for governor and narrowly lost," said Lilly Goren, a political scientist at the College of St. Catherine, referring to Coleman's 1998 gubernatorial loss to Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Lautenberg also was active in public life until just a year ago, when he retired from the Senate, Goren noted, whereas Mondale has kept a much lower profile since he was trounced in the 1984 presidential race by Ronald Reagan.

The one event that many believed may have cost Mondale votes was a memorial for Wellstone that for a time took on the air of a campaign rally, angering many voters. Even Mondale expressed disappointment with the partisanship.

Coleman, who hasn't lost the accent of his native Brooklyn, N.Y., here in "MinnesOHta," as natives pronounce it, first sought the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party's nomination for mayor of St. Paul in 1989, but didn't get it. He was overlooked again in 1993, but ran against the nominee anyway, and won.

In 1996, he switched parties, and while mayor ran against Democrat Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III and Reform Party candidate Ventura for the governorship. When Ventura won, many here expected Coleman to fade away when his mayorship ended.

Instead, President Bush asked him to take on Wellstone, a serious liberal with a famous get-out-the-vote machine in a Democratic state.

Pundits again wrote off Coleman -- until he took the lead in the polls earlier this year, a lead that Wellstone had closed just before he died. And again they wrote Coleman off when Mondale, the dean of Minnesota politicians, took Wellstone's place and, within days, the lead in the polls.

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