`With heavy heart,' Mondale accepts Senate nomination

Wellstone ballot change finalized amid GOP anger over memorial service

October 31, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MINNEAPOLIS - Walter F. Mondale, the former vice president who last held elective office 22 years ago, agreed last night to replace the late Sen. Paul Wellstone on Tuesday's ballot, but his nomination was instantly engulfed in a nasty partisan squabble over the previous evening's televised memorial service for Wellstone.

The venom with which Republicans here and in Washington had previously attacked Wellstone's record was replaced yesterday with an equally aggressive debate over tactics in the truncated campaign, as state GOP leaders and others denounced the Democrats for turning what was billed as a somber service into a rousing rally. Gov. Jesse Ventura, who walked out of the service in disgust, said he would consider appointing a member of his Independence Party - and not a Democrat - as a temporary replacement for Wellstone.

At the same time, Democrats will ask the state Supreme Court today to overhaul the improvised system for handling absentee ballots in the aftermath of the plane crash that killed Wellstone and seven others Friday, accusing the Republican secretary of state of trying to disenfranchise voters.

Coleman campaigning

As party operatives criticized each other in a series of news conferences, court filings and talk-show appearances, the Republican candidate, Norm Coleman, sought to reignite his campaign with a fly-around to the far reaches of the state.

His new opponent, Mondale, released a letter certifying what had been anticipated for days. "It is with a heavy heart, but a great hope for the future, that I will pick up the campaign where Paul Wellstone left off," Mondale, 74, wrote to the chairman of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. "Paul cannot be replaced; no one can. But his passion for Minnesotans and their needs can inspire us to continue the work he began."

About 1,000 Democrats from across the state gathered at the historic State Theatre for a convention just six days before the election to finalize Mondale's nomination. Their decision put back into the political realm a man who served in the Senate from 1964 to 1976 and who last ran a campaign in 1984.

`Let's win for Paul'

Volunteers in green Wellstone T-shirts passed out new campaign buttons that said, "One more Fritz blitz - let's win for Paul" as delegates and guests poured into the hall.

Paul Bengston, 42, who has collected political memorabilia since he was 8, wore a "Mondale for Senate" button from the 1960s on his right lapel, and a "Stand up, keep fighting" button from Tuesday night's service on his left.

"In 1984, Ronald Reagan said, `I won't hold his youth and inexperience against him,'" Bengston said, referring to Republican critics who say Mondale is too old to run again. "I think the whole thing will bring out more people. To remember Paul, sure."

But Mondale's moment was all but overshadowed by the outcry over Tuesday night's service at the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena, where about 20,000 people showered Mondale and other Democrats with standing ovations and vowed to win on Tuesday in Wellstone's name.

Republican accusation

Ron Eibensteiner, the state Republican chairman, accused his opponents of exploiting a tragedy for political gain, and he called on local television stations, which broadcast the service live, to provide his party with equal free air time.

Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone's campaign manager, apologized for some speakers' electioneering but said the event had not been scripted and simply reflected those close to the victims "speaking from the heart."

Meanwhile, Coleman tried to recover from days of endless news coverage for the Democrats with an ambitious schedule that took him to International Falls, on the state's northern border; Thief River Falls, near North Dakota; Owatonna, south of the Twin Cities; Osseo, a suburb of Minneapolis; and back to St. Paul, where he shook hands outside a Bob Dylan concert and was feted by hundreds of supporters at a rally timed to coincide with his counterpart's convention.

A new poll published in yesterday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune showed that Mondale has 98 percent name recognition across the state and leads Coleman 47 percent to 39 percent, a slightly larger gap than Wellstone's 6-point lead two weeks ago. The percentage of undecided voters has grown to 11 percent from 7 percent.

Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul, acknowledged the daunting task, comparing the reconfigured race to "running against Mount Rushmore" and paraphrasing Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion: "Anybody who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist."

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