As soon as the news of the plane crash flashed across TV screens at lunchtime Friday, Minnesotans began their individual memorials for Sen. Paul Wellstone. Several thousand arrived at the State Capitol to stand a spontaneous vigil. Wellstone campaigners cried openly on the air, while reporters cried off-camera. Callers to radio talk shows — still numb, still not ready to discuss important questions such as “now what?” or to engage in the speculation game — shared grief and memories. Some recalled the senior senator’s moments of rhetorical frenzy, arms flapping, feet hopping.
“God, I’ll miss that guy,” one caller said, his voice cracking. “Love him or hate him, what he had was passion.”
One of Wellstone’s most passionate speeches — and he was known to make them on a daily basis — was on the Senate floor this month, saying he would vote against the war resolution giving President Bush unilateral authority to attack Iraq. “It’s a question of life and death . . . and then you make an intellectually honest and personally honest decision,” Wellstone said on CNN. More than one Minnesotan said that Wellstone’s stance on Iraq would be his greatest legacy, and would have inspired voters to send him back to the Senate.
I think Wellstone would have liked to hear that. I also think that only Wellstone’s death could cause voters to remember his last campaign this way.
It’s true that some pundits outside Minnesota predicted that the Iraq vote would turn out to be the defining moment in the campaign between Wellstone and Republican challenger Norm Coleman, the popular former mayor of St. Paul. And it’s true that the poll numbers, which had indicated since February that the two were in a dead heat, had finally seemed to turn in Wellstone’s favor last week.
But it’s also true that when Wellstone spoke out against the war, it barely caused a ripple at home. After all, we certainly expected him to. And Wellstone watchers of all stripes have taken a sort of perverse pride in our senior senator’s willingness to cast unpopular votes. (In fact, he was in another neck-and-neck race when he died — a contest with Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold for the title of senator most often on the losing side of a 99-to-1 vote.)
Coleman’s support for the president’s plan didn’t surprise us either. Coleman is a conservative, a big believer in consensus-building, rarely inclined to go against the tide — and perhaps most important, he was handpicked by Bush to defeat the North Star State’s most persistent gadfly. The two candidates were split on almost every issue, and so were the voters sizing them up. When a recent poll asked which one of them would do a better job if there were a war in Iraq, the two came out dead even again.
No, the war wasn’t the issue in this race — or at least not any war in Baghdad. The real battle was between two men, as opposite as they could be: Wellstone, the former college wrestler and later college professor, aggressively frumpy and flamingly liberal; Coleman, ambitious and pro-business, slick — almost glamorous — and just about a secular saint in some quarters for bringing pro hockey back to Minnesota after the North Stars moved to Texas. Each built his campaign largely on the other’s personality and broken promises. Coleman’s most persistent message was to remind voters that Wellstone promised to serve only two terms and now was running for a third, making him into that dangerous creature, a career politician. Wellstone’s main message was to remind voters that Coleman used to be a Democrat, before finding greener pastures (and major contributions) with the Republicans.
Their public debates were often personal, and fairly uncomfortable by the close-to-the-vest Scandinavian standards of Minnesota decorum. The two sparred on a public TV show a few weeks ago, about whose campaign’s ads were the most misleading. The hosts quickly lost control of the program to Wellstone, who paid no attention to requests for concise answers, interrupted his challenger frequently, and then demanded “Let me finish!” when Coleman interrupted him. Coleman seemed tight-lipped and fairly seething.
This is why, in a weekend of eulogies for a beloved leader, Minnesotans can’t help but feel some sympathy for Coleman. Without Wellstone as his raison d’etre, what is his race about?
I’m no political analyst; I’m a newspaper columnist. But the job gives me a small glimpse into the voting zeitgeist when I check my voice mail at work, where readers often vent not about what’s in my column, but what’s on their minds. Lately, they call about the economy, about being laid-off and worrying about how long unemployment benefits will last. They call about education: With massive state deficits, dozens of school districts have levy referendums before voters, who already feel tapped out. They call about rising health insurance premiums, the cost of child care and care for their elderly parents. These issues resonate particularly with female voters, and the latest polls showed he was ahead with women by 12 points.
Just days ago it seemed that the Coleman campaign was figuring this out. A brand new ad featured Coleman’s own parents complaining that the “other fellow” was trying to scare them about losing their Social Security. The political ads have been increasingly ubiquitous — and, to most of us, irritating — but they finally disappeared Friday. Suddenly, we got TV coverage that had no time for commercial breaks — images of candlelight vigils, Norm and Laurie Coleman offering their condolences on the front stoop, and Gov. Jesse Ventura ordering the flags to fly at half-staff until Election Day.
It was Ventura who beat Coleman in his last race — his losing quest to be governor of Minnesota. Now Coleman has to fight an even stranger electoral battle. With Wellstone’s death, he has lost his adversary, his alter ego — the entire focus of a year’s worth of campaign strategy.
This campaign was never about Iraq, or about which party ends up controlling the Senate. It was about two strong personalities. No matter what happens in the next nine days, it has lost whatever definition it had.
Laura Billings is a columnist for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press.