TUNICA, Miss. -- Sen. Paul Wellstone, a liberal Minnesota Democrat, kicked off his campaign to reawaken the country to the poverty of the 1990s with a swing yesterday through Mississippi, where 30 years ago Robert F. Kennedy brought home the plight of the rural poor to the rest of America.
His main purpose, Wellstone said, is to persuade his Senate colleagues to engage in a serious dialogue on poverty and how the government might help alleviate it.
Here in Tunica County, for years the state's poorest, Wellstone saw plenty of poverty, but also evidence of much progress achieved since Kennedy's day. Wellstone argued that the better conditions were no answer to the severe poverty that remains, particularly among children, which he calls the nation's "quiet crisis."
Citing studies that show one in four American children still in poverty, Wellstone visited ramshackle frame houses in black sections of Tunica, after rolling by bus through a comfortable low-income area populated predominantly by whites.
One of his guides, Joe Eddie Hawkins, the Democratic chairman of the heavily black county, observed that "the plantation mentality still exists."
At the same time, Wellstone saw numerous homes in black areas that displayed a marked improvement over what existed when Kennedy made his famous fact-finding trip to Mississippi as a New York senator in 1967.
"Things have changed for the better," Wellstone said. "But the poverty rate is still not acceptable. This doesn't signify what the American dream is about."
Repeatedly, he lamented to accompanying reporters the state of the working poor, "who play by the rules" but still lack child care, health care and adequate schools.
Wellstone's trip to Mississippi, timed for the 30th year after the Kennedy visit, drew larger press and television coverage than did Kennedy's, which was witnessed by only a handful of national reporters and by local television viewers. But neither the degree of poverty nor the poignancy of encounters with the poor yesterday matched those of the Kennedy trip.
Accounts of that trip portrayed Kennedy as visibly shaken by scenes of small children living in filth, their stomachs swollen in hunger. Wellstone saw little of that, and he shied away from creating photo opportunities of the sort that produced emotion-packed snapshots of Kennedy with poor children.
When he approached a small girl and her baby brother outside a rundown shack, with TV cameras and boom microphones pointed at them, the baby began to cry. Wellstone quickly withdrew.
As the senator moved on, drawing TV camera operators with him, his wife, Sheila, stooped down and talked with the little girl, comforting her and eventually getting a quiet conversation going.
Wellstone seemed to go out of his way to visit symbols of progress in Tunica as well as in other neighborhoods with poor housing. One reason for the improvement is the infusion of tax money from casinos that have been legal in the state since 1993. Local officials said the casino industry has created many jobs in the county, although many of them are held by workers from elsewhere.
Inevitably, Wellstone was asked whether his visit here was really a run-up to a presidential candidacy in 2000, as has been rumored.
He reiterated that he hopes to alert the American public to the poverty crisis as a senator. But he did not rule out a national campaign if his present job did not produce an adequate forum.
One Mississippian who was skeptical was the Republican state chairman, Mike Retzer.
"He's running for the presidency, but he's not going to win the Mississippi primary," a grinning Retzer said of Wellstone. "He's using the state as a symbol and probably as a whipping boy. When Bobby Kennedy was here 30 years ago, people were hungry, and food stamps were passed. But they didn't give people the opportunity take care of themselves."
In response to criticism from some Mississippians that Wellstone was singling out their state, the senator noted that he will be taking his crusade on to Kentucky, his wife's home state, and to major Northern cities in the months ahead.
At stop after stop yesterday, black Mississippians and some whites thanked him for coming to try to help improve their lives.
To one question about whether he was a "troublemaker," as Robert Kennedy was called by some here, Wellstone smiled and said he was "proud to be in his company."
Wellstone's local hosts, including Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes the area Wellstone visited, said they were pleased with the media spotlight.
Ten years ago, a trip to Tunica by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson brought action to eradicate its infamous Sugar Ditch, in which residents of nearby shacks were obliged to deposit human waste.
Pub Date: 5/30/97