A year ago this spring, I spent several days in Minnesota trailing US Sen. Paul Wellstone as he campaigned for a third term. Wellstone, the most progressive Democrat in the Senate, was battling against a full-scale assault from the Bush White House and its chosen candidate, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

Coleman, a Democrat-turned-Republican, liberal-turned-conservative, activist-turned-insider, had a reputation as one of the most egregious political hustlers the state had ever seen. There were plenty of sordid tales to be told about the man White House political czar Karl Rove was packaging as the candidate of conservative principles, patriotism and traditional family values. Garrison Keillor, the host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” referred to Coleman as “this cheap fraud” and, echoing the sentiments of a lot of in-the-know Minnesotans, said of Coleman’s political ascension: “To accept it and grin and shake the son of a bitch’s hand is to ignore what cannot be ignored if you want your grandchildren to grow up in a country like the one that nurtured and inspired you.”

I asked Wellstone whether he thought that, considering Coleman’s high sleaze factor, this intense Senate race might eventually focus on the personal and political foibles of the Republican nominee. “I won’t let that happen,” Wellstone said, with the warm drawl that his voice took on after a long day of campaigning. “Norm Coleman and I disagree enough on the issues. And I disagree with the Bush White House on the issues. I wouldn’t want to win a race that focused on Norm’s personality or his style. That’s not right. Minnesota deserves better.”

Wellstone was so determined to avoid cheap shots at Coleman that, even in private conversations, he refused to reflect on his opponent’s foibles.

Minnesotans recognized Wellstone’s grace and dignity, and polls suggested that they were preparing to re-elect him by a wide margin when a plane crash just days before the election killed the senator and his wife, Sheila, as well as their daughter, Marcia, and five others. The grief, confusion and political churn of the days following Wellstone’s death created an opening that Coleman would not otherwise have had, and he won the Senate seat — at least in part because he promised to honor his late opponent’s legacy and hailed Wellstone as a “selfless public servant who embodied the best of Minnesota.”

Now that he is settled in the Senate, however, Coleman’s true stripes are showing. And it has become clear that, in addition to abandoning Wellstone’s political principles, Coleman has also rejected his predecessor’s reticence about taking political cheap shots at foes — living or dead.

During an interview with the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call last week, Coleman waved an unlit cigar in the air and declared: “To be very blunt and God watch over Paul’s soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone,” Coleman told the reporter. “Just about on every issue.”

The reporter offered Coleman a chance to redeem himself by asking about the remaining 1 percent. But Coleman didn’t bite. Instead, he complained about Wellstone’s political independence. “Wellstone was never with the president,” explained Coleman, referring to the Democrat’s refusal to go along with the Bush administration’s agenda. “I could be with the president most of the time.”

The new senator even found time to dismiss the suggestion from some of Wellstone’s grieving supporters that his replacement might want to maintain some of his predecessor’s legacy. “They lost their champion and they thought something was taken away,” Coleman said of Wellstone backers. “All you can do is say, ‘Hey, I mourn the loss, but I am here and I am going to do what I think is the right thing to do and thank God I have a chance to be here.'”

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., described Coleman’s remarks as inappropriate, disrespectful and “an unnecessary attack on a leader our state continues to mourn.” She demanded an apology, as did 100 demonstrators who gathered outside Coleman’s St. Paul office. Martha Bellou, one of the demonstrators, summed the mood up when she referred to Coleman “defaming the dead” and allowed as how, “Even for Norm this is a new low.”

After first refusing to apologize, Coleman grudgingly acknowledged: “The people of Minnesota should expect more from this senator.”

At least Norm Coleman was right about that.