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Wellstone's Beliefs May Imperil His Political Career

Profile: Eleven years ago his Gulf War opposition drew rebukes. Now, Minnesota senator's reelection is at stake over his antiwar stance.

October 04, 2002|FAYE FIORE and STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Even before Paul Wellstone was sworn into office 11 years ago as a U.S. senator from Minnesota, he staged several protests to a brewing Persian Gulf War that perturbed veterans, annoyed the vice president and prompted then-President George Bush to dismiss him as, to put it mildly, poultry droppings.

Today, the liberal Democratic lawmaker is poised to again oppose what he sees as a rush to war with Iraq. But this time, the consequences of his convictions stand to cost him more than a presidential rebuke.

Wellstone is locked in one of country's tightest Senate races, challenged by a charismatic former mayor of St. Paul who supports the authorization for a war that Wellstone, on Thursday, went on record as opposing.

"Acting now on our own might be a sign of our power," Wellstone said from the Senate floor, "but acting sensibly and in a measured way in concert with our allies ... would be a sign of our strength."

The decision to oppose a resolution granting presidential authority for a preemptive strike against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did not come without some agonizing. With two terms behind him, Wellstone is hardly the fervent peacenik who exploded onto the Washington landscape in 1991. Now he is a 58-year-old man caught between an antiwar pedigree and the desire for a third term. And the swing voters he needs to win are not likely to warm to tie-dyed liberalism.

"There is lots at stake," Wellstone conceded as he boarded the sleek subway from the Senate chamber back to his office. "I was asked this morning if this would hurt me politically. I don't have any idea. But what would hurt me for sure would be to utter words on the floor of the Senate that I don't believe or to vote for something I am against, especially on a question of life and death."

For Democrats running in tight races in states that President Bush carried in 2000, the political choice is clear: Support the resolution.

But Wellstone's constituency is split. Minnesota is not the liberal bastion it was in the days of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. It is quirky, the state that made a professional wrestler its governor. Its party loyalty is divided in thirds among Republicans, Democrats and independents. And however Wellstone votes on the subject of Iraq is likely to bring political trouble.

"It's a real gut check, definitely a tough vote for him," said Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

Wellstone, Jacobs explained, has challengers on his right and his left. Opposing the war could turn some voters to Republican Norm Coleman, who as St. Paul's mayor brought hockey back to the city.

But supporting the war could energize the so-far lackluster candidacy of the Green Party's Ray Tricomo, siphoning off just enough votes to cost Wellstone his seat.

Despite careful deliberation in recent days--Wellstone talked at length with his advisors, his wife and three grown children--some experts believe his only choice was to oppose a "go-it-alone" march to war.

His track record on the use of military force is long and well-documented, pre-dating even his notorious debut as the newly minted senator who pestered the president.

Before his election, Wellstone taught a course called Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., essentially instruction in the mechanics of political protest.

A quick-witted ex-wrestler who stands 5-foot-5, he has made his reputation in Washington less as a war protester than as Everyman's advocate, the champion of underdogs.

To suddenly support Bush's bid for broad authority to move against Iraq, experts said, would have seemed out of character at best, unprincipled at worst.

"If he abandons what should be a clear position, that opens up questions about character that are much more important than any single vote," Jacobs said.

Polls show his race with Coleman close and the electorate unpredictable, making it hard to foresee how Wellstone's position will play with voters.

Iraq has not been a front-burner issue in the campaign--indeed, a greater problem for Wellstone has been his broken promise to retire after two terms.

But a recent statewide survey suggested Wellstone may be in step with the majority when the Iraq question is raised, with 58% opposed to unilateral action by the United States. And in Minnesota on Thursday, some voters applauded the senator's call for restraint.

Don Murray, 80, was playing cards in a senior center in the little town of Milaca. "We better stop old George before he starts getting everyone killed," he said of the president. "Maybe I'll even vote for Wellstone now."

Bob Lee, 42, an economist who was waiting to catch a flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, agreed. "I think it's important for people to challenge Bush's runaway PR freight train," he said. "I'm glad Wellstone is a free spirit and not afraid to challenge the status quo."

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