WASHINGTON — With the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrats face a wrenching decision that could determine the fierce struggle for control of the U.S. Senate.
Both national and state Democrats had been increasingly confident Wellstone would beat back a formidable challenge from Republican Norm Coleman, the former St. Paul mayor, in the Nov. 5 elections. Now, state and national Democrats must decide which replacement candidate would have the best chance of holding the seat.
Though half a dozen names immediately generated speculation as possible replacements, Democratic sources said Friday that many insiders -- including organized labor, a powerful force in the Minnesota party -- were focusing on 74-year-old former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who served in the Senate from Minnesota from 1964 to '76.
"People are scrambling around," said one senior labor official. "But wiser minds are leaning toward Walter Mondale, if he will do it."
Mondale did not return a call to his law office in Minnesota seeking comment.
The choice is critical because of the tight national battle between the two parties for a Senate majority. Democrats now hold a one-seat majority, and at least five other Senate races remain too close to call, so they can ill-afford to lose Minnesota.
The latest polls gave Wellstone a narrow but steady lead. If Wellstone's death puts the race back in play for Coleman, it would significantly improve the GOP's odds of recapturing control of the Senate.
Other names under discussion as possible Wellstone successors include Mondale's son, Ted Mondale, a former state senator who lost a bid for the gubernatorial nomination in 1998, and former state Atty. Gen. Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III, who won that nomination but lost the general election to independent Jesse Ventura. Humphrey is the son of another famed Minnesota politician, former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
Also being mentioned are Alan Page, a former star defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings now serving as a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court; Atty. Gen. Mike Hatch; and Judith Dutcher, the state auditor.
It is likely to take Minnesota Democrats several days to make their decision -- under the intensely interested eye of national party leaders.
"It will be a few days before it is decided," said one national Democratic official. "Not because of contrived mourning, but because of actual mourning."
Added another top Washington Democrat: "These people are just devastated. There are no informed conversations yet."
The earliest the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, as it is known in Minnesota, could pick a successor is Tuesday. Party bylaws require 72 hours notice before it can meet to make the decision.
The latest the Democrats could act is Friday. State law allows a party to replace a nominee who dies until four days before the election. But it requires them to act within seven days of the vacancy.
That means, for the next few days at least, that Wellstone's death will freeze the campaign. Sources close to Coleman say he has suspended campaigning indefinitely.
The tragedy is reminiscent of a plane crash late in the 2000 campaign that killed Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, the Democratic Senate nominee against GOP incumbent John Ashcroft.
Carnahan had been trailing in the polls. But his name stayed on the ballot and his Democratic successor as governor indicated he would appoint Carnahan's widow, Jean, to the seat if the dead man received the most votes. Amid a wave of sympathy, that's what happened, and Jean Carnahan took office, a crucial win for the Democrats. She's now in a tight race for a full term against Republican Jim Talent.
One national Democratic official involved in talks with leaders of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party says some were talking initially about trying to leave Wellstone's name on the ballot, as a gesture of respect and in the belief that he would win the most votes.
But Democratic lawyers, both locally and nationally, say that option appears to be prohibited under state law.
Less clear is what will happen to absentee ballots that have already been mailed. Minnesota law states: "Absentee ballots that have been mailed prior to the [vacancy] ... shall be counted in the same manner as if the vacancy had not occurred."
Los Angeles attorney Fred Woocher said that leaves open the question of whether absentee ballots cast for Wellstone will be discarded or assigned to the Democratic replacement.
"There's a real problem in either of these two options. One gives an obvious advantage to the Republican candidate; the other assumes the voter's intent to vote for the Democratic nominee and not for the individual candidate himself or herself," Woocher said.
Raleigh Hannah Levine, a professor at William Mitchell Law School in St. Paul, noted another twist. Because of Wellstone's death, Coleman or a replacement Democratic candidate would take office immediately after the election.
If Coleman wins, that could give Republicans a Senate majority for a postelection session, regardless of which party holds the majority in January. There's a similar possibility if Talent beats Carnahan, who also has been filling a vacant seat.
If the party reaches back to Mondale, it would be the second time in recent weeks it has sought rescue from an older former senator. When Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) withdrew from his reelection campaign, state Democrats picked 78-year-old former Sen. Frank Lautenberg to replace him.
Mondale hasn't run for public office since his landslide defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential race.
Times staff writer Henry Weinstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.