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Paul Wellstone, Fighter | The Nation

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Paul Wellstone, Fighter

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When Coleman switched ambitions under pressure from the White House, even Republicans said he would not be helped much by being identified as "Bush's boy" in a state that tends to favor politicians who think for themselves. But things changed after September 11. As Bush's approval ratings soared, Coleman wrapped himself in the cloak of presidential popularity--and perks. When Bush made his second Coleman-promoting trip to the state this March, banners announced Minnesota Is George W. Bush and Norm Coleman Country. The ex-mayor stepped off Air Force One with Bush, and stuck by his supporter-in-chief like glue through a day that culminated with Bush's raising $1.2 million for Coleman and another $800,000 in soft money for GOP efforts on his behalf. Former President George Bush headlined an October fundraiser in St. Paul for Coleman, and Cheney signed a fundraising appeal. Rove steered special-interest contributions--especially those from an energy industry angered by Wellstone's decadelong battle against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--toward accounts established to aid the man Minnesota media call "Bush's favored-son candidate." Minnesota political observers predict Coleman's campaign will spend $10 million, while another $5 million will be spent by the GOP and anti-Wellstone interests. Anti-Wellstone attack ads are already on TV, and the hits will keep on coming. Republicans say Wellstone's decision to seek a third term--after having stated years ago that he only planned to serve two--is evidence that the maverick Senator has "gone Washington." It's a tough sell, considering Coleman's party switch, but Richman says, "They'll hit Paul from now until November--above the belt and below the belt."

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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In this most intense of all Senate contests, Wellstone knows he will not win re-election simply by unfurling old Farmer-Labor banners. To counter Coleman's claim that a Republican can get more done for Minnesota, Wellstone is showcasing legislative accomplishments and the coalitions he has forged with Republicans to increase funding for teacher training, vocational education and environmental protection. Those efforts got an unexpected boost in April when Bush broke with Republicans to endorse Wellstone's proposal to make corporations provide mental healthcare coverage for employees.

But while he will make the case that he can forge coalitions with the best of 'em, Wellstone is not selling himself as a centrist. No one would believe him. Besides, he says, the winning message is still a populist one. Wellstone is determined to "draw real lines of distinction" in this year's campaign, and that will serve him well in the DFL's urban and rural strongholds--where he can energize voters who were unenthused about Gore. Yet, like Democrats in rapidly changing states across the country, Wellstone understands that he must craft a message that adds suburban votes to his base. He would have a comfortable lead today were it not for the margin--twelve points in a recent poll--that Coleman has in the nine suburban counties around the Twin Cities. One of the primary tasks of the Wellstone campaign this year is to find the populist bone in the suburban body politic. Orfield, the expert on suburban voting patterns, thinks it will succeed. "Some of the issues Paul has fought hardest on--healthcare, protecting pensions, environmental protection--play very strongly in middle-income suburbs where people are feeling squeezed," Orfield argues. "I think that Paul is going to do a very good job of reaching them, and I think that his success will provide a very important lesson for Democrats in other parts of the country."

Wellstone says the strategy is to reach across lines of class and community to focus on issues that are universal--like education. So what's the populist twist on the education debate? Wellstone's first television ads explain that Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans will dry up money needed to educate urban, rural and suburban kids. Scrap the cuts, Wellstone argues, and free up $121 billion for education programs over ten years. While most Senate Democrats shy away from such talk, and while Coleman claims the Senator is engaging in "class warfare," Wellstone says, "This is a message that gets people excited because it rejects the Administration's line that there isn't enough money to educate our children, care for our seniors, clean up the environment and provide healthcare benefits to people who need them."

Coleman and Rove are betting that while Wellstone's message may play in rural and urban areas, it won't excite suburbanites. But Krentz, the suburban state senator, thinks Wellstone is on to something. "Paul understands that he's got to connect with suburban parents who know that their kids' schools are not being funded adequately, and he's got to get them thinking about why that is happening," she says. "It's tough because people like to believe that it's possible to settle things without a fight. Paul's challenge is to convince people that there are issues worth fighting for."

With the Enron scandal fresh in America's memory, Wellstone will also push the idea that there are interests worth fighting against. "When the oil company money comes in, we're going to talk about it," he says. "We're going to fight like hell."

Wellstone means it when he says "we." Despite Bush's aid to Coleman, Wellstone is keeping pace in fundraising thanks to an activist base that has provided 70,000 contributions averaging $48. But that does not mean that he is mounting a standard campaign. While campaign manager Jeff Blodgett says Wellstone will try to match Coleman's advertising blitz, the campaign will devote more than half its budget to the sort of people-to-people networking that can deliver Wellstone's message to every precinct in the state. Labor, farm and education groups are helping to organize 25,000 volunteers, 7,500 of whom are expected to take time off from work to help on Election Day. Says precinct activist Ritchie, "You're going to see a campaign where the Bush money gets beat because Wellstone is so damn strong at the grassroots that--no matter how many lies they try to tell--there will be a network to get the truth out." Wellstone is devoting tremendous time and energy to expanding the network far beyond the traditional DFL base. "This really is the new Minnesota," he says as he enters Pooh Phetnongphay's Laotian restaurant in St. Paul. "Paul's a sweetheart," Phetnongphay says. "Everyone is registering to vote to help him win."

Even as Phetnongphay speaks, Wellstone is working the other side of the crowded room. The candidate is limping because of his multiple sclerosis. But the disease, which by all accounts is both under control and of little concern to Minnesotans, has stolen none of his thunder. At 57, he is running harder than ever before. His state and his country are changing. But his faith that a progressive populist message can reach a new Minnesota--and a new America--is unshaken. "The President can come in. The Vice President can come in. The big money can come in. But I'm not worried. I've got you with me," Wellstone roars, as he rallies his troops. "I am a proud progressive senator from Minnesota. I am a proud liberal senator. I am a labor senator. I am an environmentalist senator. I am an education senator. I am a civil rights senator. And that's how we win this election. That's the politics that wins this year."

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