EDITOR'S NOTE: WORLD WENT TO PRESS LATE THURSDAY NIGHT, OCT. 24. ON FRIDAY, OCT. 25, SENATOR PAUL WELLSTONE, ALONG WITH HIS WIFE, DAUGHTER, AND FIVE OTHERS, DIED IN THE CRASH OF A TWIN-ENGINE TURBOPROP NEAR EVELETH, MINNESOTA, 175 MILES NORTH OF MINNEAPOLIS. MR. WELLSTONE, 58, WHO WAS ON HIS WAY TO THE FUNERAL OF THE FATHER OF A STATE LEGISLATOR, LEAVES BEHIND TWO OTHER CHILDREN. LISA PATTNI, AN AIDE AT THE CRASH SITE, SAID, "IT'S JUST TERRIBLE. SAY A PRAYER."
MINNESOTA LAW STATES THAT WHEN A POLITICAL PARTY'S CANDIDATE FOR THE SENATE DIES, THE PARTY CAN SELECT A REPLACEMENT CANDIDATE UP TO FOUR DAYS BEFORE THE GENERAL ELECTION, WHICH THIS YEAR FALLS ON NOV. 5.
FOR THE TURKEY RIVER ALL-stars, this gig must have seemed like prime time. A hobo band straight out of Hee Haw, they'd been asked to provide the entertainment when the president of the United States visited southern Minnesota.
They never actually got to serenade the president himself-his visit was much too short for that-but they did play their banjos, washboards, and harmonicas for the crowds waiting outside in a bone-chilling wind. They received enthusiastic applause between sets, but only from the 100 or so people close enough to hear. From the band's position by the front doors of the college gym, the line of people stretched a hundred yards up the sidewalk, dog-legged to the right, and snaked through the parking lot, perhaps a quarter mile in all.
Inside, the lineup of politicians waiting to get up on the stage seemed almost as long as the one outside. With President Bush in town, every GOP hopeful in a close race wanted to be seen by his side-and this year, in this state, that's a lot of candidates.
Political pundits marvel that the nation is incredibly closely divided between the two parties, and Minnesota may illustrate that division better than anywhere else. According to polls, all three of the state's top races-Senate, House, and governor-are too close to call. That's left GOP pros biting their nails and GOP candidates scrambling for photo opportunities with their popular leader.
In a sign of just how important the White House views Minnesota, the Oct. 18 rally in Rochester marked the president's fourth trip to the state, and officials say he might return twice more before Election Day. That's an extraordinary level of attention from a commander in chief embroiled in the fight against international terrorism, but Mr. Bush knows his entire presidency may turn on the results of mid-term balloting.
Minnesota has a history of Election Day surprises, so nobody will breathe easy here until the last ballot is counted. Four years ago, former pro wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura shocked both major parties by coming from nowhere to win the governor's mansion as an independent. And two years ago, Mark Kennedy, a political novice who never even made it onto the radar screens of national Republican powerbrokers, defeated four-term Rep. David Minge (D) by just 155 votes.
As the come-from-behind poster boy of the Minnesota GOP, Mr. Kennedy took the stage at the presidential rally to introduce some of the current Republican challengers who hope to follow in his footsteps. For 2002, the party has pinned its hopes on John Kline, funneling major resources into his race against Rep. Bill Luther, a vulnerable Democratic incumbent. Mr. Kline challenged Mr. Luther two years ago, as well, losing by fewer than 6,000 votes.
The redistricting that followed the 2000 census may have wiped out that narrow Luther advantage. Nearly 80 percent of the voters in suburban Minneapolis' new 2nd Congressional District have never seen the incumbent's name on a ballot before, so both candidates started the race as relative unknowns. Moreover, the district went heavily for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential contest, even while Minnesota as a whole gave its electoral votes to Al Gore.
The candidates are spending heavily on airtime in the campaign's final weeks-well over $1 million for Mr. Luther and about $900,000 for his challenger. But the crowded ballot in Minnesota this year makes it tough to get noticed, even in important federal races. Politicians are fighting for attention in the expensive Minneapolis-St. Paul media market, by far the state's largest population center. In addition to the Luther-Kline race, there's Mr. Kennedy, the first-term surprise winner, who's facing a strong challenge from Janet Robert, a lawyer and heiress with seemingly endless personal financial resources.
Both those races, however, are dwarfed by a couple of statewide political brawls. With the restless Mr. Ventura moving on to the next stage of his erratic career, the governor's office is at the center of a three-way tug-of-war. The Independence Party, Mr. Ventura's third-party experiment, nominated Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman and a fellow at the right-of-center Cato Institute. His campaign is widely seen as a referendum on the future of Minnesota's three-party system. If he loses, the Independence Party will likely disappear, its voters migrating back to one of the two major parties. (No third party has won back-to-back gubernatorial races since the 1930s.)
Republicans have pinned their gubernatorial hopes on Tim Pawlenty, the conservative majority leader in the state House of Representatives. The Democratic standard-bearer is Roger Moe, his party's leader in the state Senate. Both have limited themselves to $2.2 million in public campaign funding, relying on their state party organizations to boost them with independent expenditures.
It's a strategy that not only strains the resources of the party organizations but has other drawbacks, as well: Mr. Pawlenty recently paid a whopping $600,000 fine after an oversight board ruled that his campaign had illegally collaborated with the state GOP in coordinating a series of TV ads. Polls show the race is too close to call, with all three candidates within 2 or 3 percentage points of each other two weeks before Election Day.
But even the governor's race, as tight as it is, has largely been conducted in the shadow of the mammoth Senate contest. Though Mr. Bush's recent appearance in Rochester was ostensibly a "joint appearance" for all the top GOP candidates, the battle for the Senate was clearly uppermost in his mind. He lavished praise on Norm Coleman, the Republican hopeful, while repeatedly citing instances in which the Democratic majority had foiled his legislative agenda. Although he never mentioned the ultra-liberal incumbent by name, no one could doubt that he'd love to see Paul Wellstone replaced.
President Bush decided long ago that Mr. Coleman represented one of the best chances to take over a Democratic Senate seat. He personally wooed the former Democratic mayor of St. Paul, betting that his appeal with urban voters would cut into the Democrats' traditional base. Polls have showed the race neck-and-neck for months, although the latest survey, released just hours after the president's visit, had Mr. Wellstone with a lead just at the limits of sampling error.
(A poll's margin of error simply accounts for the possibility that the sample may not be representative of the general population. For instance, if 1,000 voters are called randomly in a state where the population is split 50-50 between the two parties, then the sample should reflect that same split. But there is a small chance that 1,000 random phone calls might inadvertently reach 700 Democratic households, which obviously would skew the results. Pollsters account for this possibility by acknowledging that their numbers could be off, generally by 3 to 4 points either way.)
Without at least one pickup in the Midwest-in either Minnesota, South Dakota, or Missouri-Republicans have virtually no hope of recapturing the Senate. (See scorecard.) That's kept the White House intensely focused on those races, perhaps to the detriment of down-ticket Republicans in the same states. State parties and individual campaigns can recruit only so many volunteers to knock on doors and man phone banks, and the help tends to go where the stakes appear greatest.
No one doubts that the stakes are huge in the Minnesota Senate contest. Mr. Bush has pinned much of his political agenda as well as his personal prestige on the race. After campaigning so often for Mr. Coleman, he risks being viewed as politically vulnerable if the Republican falls short on Nov. 5. If he can prove he has coattails, on the other hand, the president's hand will be greatly strengthened in his dealings with the next Congress.
Republicans are betting that a popular president can make the difference in a race as tight as this one. In Rochester, Mr. Bush received the kind of ecstatic welcome usually reserved for rock stars. Republicans love him with a fervor not seen since the Reagan years, and his handling of the terrorist threat has minimized the negative-coattails effect that hurt Democrats midway through President Clinton's first term.
If Mr. Bush can convince enough voters that the war on terrorism depends on a cooperative Senate, he just might be able to shake loose the one seat he's looking for. But that pitch won't help much in House and gubernatorial races, where voter concerns are more parochial and the balance of power is not such a pressing issue.
In other words, down-ticket candidates are largely on their own this Election Day, despite the president's high approval ratings and his active campaign schedule. Two women leaving the Rochester gymnasium following the Bush speech last week perfectly illustrated the problem facing such candidates. "We've got to win back the Senate," said one, adding that she planned to sign up to work the phones for Mr. Coleman.
"Great," her friend replied, "what about Kennedy?"
"I can't help them all," said the first woman. "I've still got hungry mouths to feed."