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Monday, 28 October, 2002, 11:44 GMT
Senate loses a giant
As US voters prepare to make their choices in the mid-term elections, the BBC's Washington correspondent Nick Bryant reflects on the death of Senator Paul Wellstone and how it has affected the campaign.

The career of Senator Paul Wellstone offers a profile in political courage. Iron-willed, pugnacious and idealistic, he displayed a passionate intensity seldom seen these days in American politics. Rarely, if ever, was he swept along by the political tide. More often than not, he swam against it.

Throughout his almost 12 years as a member of the United States Senate, he appeared to derive an almost perverse pleasure in taking on fights where he stood little, if any, hope of victory.

Principled

On votes in the Senate where there was near unanimity, with 98 or 99 lawmakers in cosy agreement, normally it was Wellstone who offered up the only dissenting voice.


Just 5ft 5ins tall, he was a giant of the Senate.

Principled to the very end, only this month he voted against giving congressional approval to President Bush to fight a war against Iraq, even though he faced a tough re-election battle in Minnesota. He was the only Democrat in a tight race to do so. Not for him the politics of the focus group or telephone poll.

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An old-style New Deal Democrat, in the Minnesotan mould of Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, he remained resolutely true to his convictions.

There was something almost Capra-esque about this son of Jewish-Russian immigrants. And when Mr Wellstone came to Washington, he took an unconventional route.

Paul Wellstone
Paul Wellstone: 'Politically courageous'
In his first run for office in 1990, the former college wrestling champion and local professor drove around Minnesota in a clapped-out school bus painted green with a huge 'Wellstone' sign hanging on the back.

Up against a respected incumbent, Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz, few gave him much hope of victory.

But Wellstone launched a brilliant insurgent campaign, revelling in his reputation as the quintessential anti-politician.

Starved of campaign cash, at one point he came up with the idea of cutting a television advertisement in which his voice was speeded up, so that it almost sounded like he had inhaled helium.

1960s radical

With typical mischief and irreverence, it pressed home the point that only his well-financed opponent could stump up the money for more air-time.

Wellstone, who had never held elective office before, went on to win a hair-breadth victory - and one which stunned the political establishment.

As Mother Jones magazine put it, Wellstone was 'the first 1960s radical elected to the US Senate'.

Grieving Wellstone supporter
The campaign team were devastated
Few Senators embodied the true spirit of American democracy better than Wellstone. He hated fund-raising. He hated corporate-financed lobbyists.

And he hated the depressing reality that America has the best politicians that money can buy.

Wellstone, with his scruffy suits and unkempt hair, punctured the pomposity of the Senate. And it is a lesser place without him.

Political impact

The simple fact that one of the most fulsome tributes following his sudden death came from arch-conservative, Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina, is an indication of how profoundly he will be missed on both sides of the aisle.

Just 5ft 5ins tall, he was a giant of the Senate.

So what of the political impact of his death?

Up until last Friday, Minnesota, along with South Dakota, was at the very top of the Republican's target list. Needing a net gain of just one seat to regain control of the Senate, Wellstone's ouster was central to their plans.

Republican strategists believed that the liberal Democrat was vulnerable, partly because of his stance on Iraq, and partly because, in Norm Coleman, the former Mayor of St Paul, they were fielding a popular candidate. Now they will have to recalculate.

It is always hard to run against a legacy, as former Senator John Ashcroft found in 2000, when he was beaten by Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, who died three weeks before election day in a plane crash.

Crash site
Mr Wellstone's plane came down in bad weather
Carnahan's widow, Jean, was appointed to serve in his place and is now seeking election.

Unlike Missouri, Minnesota election law dictates that the Democrats have to replace Wellstone's name on the ballot.

And it now seems likely that former Vice-President Walter Mondale, who held the seat for 12 years up until the 1976 presidential election, will take his place.

Mondale is expected to make a final decision after Wellstone's memorial service on Tuesday, but he has the blessing of the former senator's sons and Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle is also urging him to run.

Mondale 'hard to beat'

The last time Mondale ran for office was in 1984, when he ran for president against Ronald Reagan.

Truth is, he ran a dismal campaign. But no Democrat stood a chance against Reagan, who was then at the climax of his powers.

This time, the 75-year-old, who has spent much of the past 18 years practising law, is a far more formidable proposition.

The Republicans would cast him as a reluctant place-holder, up against a much younger candidate eager to do the job. But they know that Mondale will be hard to beat.

They would not only be up against a popular vice-president, but the memory of Paul Wellstone, Minnesota's much-loved former senator.


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