Even as Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone announced his opposition to George W. Bush’s call for Congressional authorization to “use all means” against Iraq, White House political director Karl Rove was busy unleashing the dogs of political war. Retired Air Force Reserve Brig. Gen. Denny Schulstad, a veteran Republican, appeared at a rally in support of Norm Coleman, Wellstone’s opponent in a tight November race, and labeled Wellstone one of “the worst enemies of America’s defense.” Joseph Repya, a Veterans of Foreign Wars post commander, dutifully characterized Wellstone as a “sixties radical who has never recognized there is good and evil in this world.” Coleman said it was time to “rally around the President,” while Rove plotted a pre-election visit by Bush, and GOP strategists prepped a new round of TV attack ads.

The battering came as no surprise. The “regime change” Rove is most focused on is not in Iraq but in the Senate, where the defeat of a single Democrat would give Republicans control. And defeating Wellstone has always been a top priority for Bush and Rove, who recruited Coleman to make the race and attached the party’s fundraising spigots to the challenger’s treasury. Now that the White House has shifted the agenda from corporate crime and economic instability–issues that favored the Democrats–to war, with House and Senate votes on the President’s war resolution scheduled to take place before the November election, Rove is gearing up for the Minnesota mission he hopes will nuke his top-targeted senator.

Wellstone, who has decried the resolution as “a blank check for unilateral action,” and other dissenting Democrats will get little cover from party leaders. Majority leader Tom Daschle clings to the failed strategy of letting Bush lead the discussion while Democrats tinker around the edges. Count on Daschle to push Wellstone and other Democrats to back a gently reworked resolution that, for all the talk of restraints, will still be viewed by the Administration as carte blanche. It would make no sense for Wellstone to cave, however. His stance is a matter of conscience and common sense: An obviously out-of-character vote would harm his reputation as a straight shooter and could cause antiwar Minnesotans–who already have gripes about the senator–to vote Green or stay home.

How should Wellstone and like-minded Democrats respond to Rove’s ravaging? Ceding the Iraq debate to the Administration, as cowering Democrats counsel, will not make it easier to focus on economic matters. Republicans are determined to surf national security issues into November. Thus, the road back to a debate about corporate wrongdoing and economic security must begin with honest and outspoken criticism of Bush’s go-it-alone approach–seizing the space opened up by the dissents of former President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Al Gore, who rightly identified Bush’s focus on Iraq as a distraction from fighting terrorism.

Wellstone and other dissenting Democrats would do well to go back to the playbook Wellstone used in his successful 1996 re-election campaign. That year, when Congress voted for a draconian welfare reform bill, Wellstone was the only vulnerable incumbent to oppose the legislation. Republicans attacked him as “Senator Welfare.” Wellstone countered with television ads that explained his vote. His poll numbers spiked. This is another teaching moment for the former professor, who has always earned high marks from voters for being his own man. As in 1996, there are risks involved. But Wellstone, more than anyone else running this year, knows a bold vote must be matched with an equally bold campaign in order to beat the cynics.