Cover Story

Northern nail-biter

Control of the Senate-and perhaps the future of the Bush presidency-may depend on Minnesota's tight race between Norm Coleman and Paul Wellstone. That battle leads a slate of close races in a state with a history of Election Day surprises

Issue: "The 2002 vote," Nov. 2, 2002

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.

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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.)

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