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Flukes, Fate Play Big Role in Fight for Senate Control

The death of Wellstone is the latest event to put policy issues on the back burner this campaign.

October 27, 2002|Janet Hook and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) is just the latest in a series of bolts from the blue that have buffeted the national political parties in this year's bitter fight for control of the Senate.

Some of the biggest mood swings in this year's campaign have been driven not by the big issues of war, peace and the economy, but by flukes that have little to do with whether voters want Democrats or Republicans to control the Senate and thus serve as a brake or reinforcement to President Bush's policy initiatives.

A Democratic senator from New Jersey drops out of the race at the last minute because of questionable gifts he accepted. A Republican candidate in Montana drops out, then jumps back into the race, because of a Democratic Party television ad he considered scurrilous. An Iowa Democrat gets in hot water because his campaign staff apparently leaked a tape of a meeting of his GOP opponent.

Every political campaign can be shaped by such unpredictable episodes. But this year every local accident, scandal and quirk of fate draws national attention because, with Democrats controlling the Senate by a mere 50-49 margin -- before Wellstone's death -- the 2002 election has been one in which each Senate race could determine the outcome.

So when Wellstone's plane crashed Friday in northern Minnesota, it was not just a tragedy for his family, his state and the liberal causes he represented. It also was a big political problem for national Democratic Party officials who have been on a roller coaster throughout this volatile election cycle.

"It has been an emotional time," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), whose tenure as chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spanned last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Capitol's exposure to anthrax. "You can't predict the future, and there are paths you never expect to go down."

The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has until Friday to announce who will replace Wellstone on the ballot. Party officials say no decision will be announced until after Wellstone's funeral, which will not be before Monday.

But state and national party leaders have been putting pressure on former Vice President Walter F. Mondale to come back into politics, take Wellstone's place on the ticket and, with the strength of his vast celebrity in the state, help the party keep that crucial Senate seat.

Among the Democratic Party stalwarts who have spoken to Mondale about the race have been Murray, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. Mondale has not commented publicly on his plans, but he has said nothing to discourage the speculation.

"He's not said no, but he's not said yes," a top party strategist said.

Without Mondale, national party strategists say, Democrats will have a harder time holding the seat -- and could lose control of the Senate -- not because voters prefer the Republican agenda, but because of an aviation tragedy.

Federal officials arrived Saturday to investigate the crash site in Eveleth, Minn., and retrieve the remains of Wellstone, his wife and daughter and five others. The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to the site, initially in search of a flight recorder that, it turned out, the plane did not carry.

Still in shock and mourning over Wellstone's death, leaders of Minnesota's DFL Party met Saturday to discuss how to proceed in the Senate race. But Wellstone's family and close allies still were focused on efforts to properly memorialize him. State officials acknowledged after the meeting that there was growing consensus that Mondale would be the best choice as a replacement on the ballot.

"I wanted to make sure Democratic leaders were all on the same page," DFL Chairman Mike Erlandson said after the meeting. "We need to remain unified."

Some members of the Wellstone campaign want either to keep Wellstone's name on the Nov. 5 ballot, which may not be legally possible, or have his two sons receive consideration.

State party officials said Wellstone's sons would have a say in the matter of their father's succession and were under consideration. Others, however, said the decision to go with Mondale was all but official.

Mondale, who turns 75 in January, served as senator from 1964 to 1976, has national clout and strong name identification. He has a law practice in Minneapolis and has maintained a public presence in the state.

David Wellstone, who has been active in state politics and served as political director for the gubernatorial campaign of Hubert H. Humphrey's son Skip in 1998, is considered to more closely mirror his father's liberal views and would permit the DFL to leave the Wellstone name on the ballot, where it could garner many sympathy votes.

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