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US Elections 2002: It's Fritz!

Notes From The Campaign Trail: It's Fritz!

By Barbara O'Brien

It's Fritz!

As I write, it is nearly certain that former Vice President Walter "Fritz" Mondale will replace the late Senator Paul Wellstone as the Minnesota Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

Senator Wellstone died last Friday when his twin-engine campaign aircraft crashed in northern Minnesota.

The 74-year-old Mondale, who was Vice President during the Carter Administration, has been out of politics since he lost a presidential bid to Ronald Reagan in 1984. As I write, he has not formally announced he would be a Senate candidate. Yet Republicans wasted no time going on the attack. For example, in what has to be one of the weirder statements to come out of this election season, former Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich claimed "Walter Mondale chaired a commission that was for the privatization of Social Security worldwide."

Worldwide? Gingrich, appearing on the Sunday morning news interview program "Meet the Press" on NBC, managed to push two big buttons at once -- Social Security and the evil specter of one-world government. (Terry M. Neal reports in the Washington Post that while Fritz Mondale indeed co-chaired a commission of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and this commission did suggest such things, Fritz himself dissented.)

Also on the program was Democratic major domo James Carville, who said, "What I found interesting was that the White House called the Secretary of State's office to find out the succession law before the president even went out and gave any condolences. I also find interesting that a Mr. Walsh in the Republican Party was in the Star Tribune attacking Senator Mondale this morning before we've even buried Senator Wellstone."

But let's not be too hard on the Republicans. Since Friday the nation has witnessed something not seen since the 1960s -- politicians and news pundits saying nice things about a liberal. Wellstone was honest, brave, compassionate, hard working, they say, and a liberal. The "L" word is rarely heard in polite company in the U.S.

"Saturation coverage lauding a populist Democrat this close to an election is the Republicans' worst nightmare," said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.

In many ways, the Republican candidate, Norman Coleman, is in a position similar to Doug Forrester in New Jersey. Forrester's Senate campaign was all about destroying his opponent, Robert Torricelli. When Torricelli dropped out of the race, Forrester had to scramble for something else to run on. He doesn't seem to have found it. His new opponent, 78-year-old Fightin' Frank Lautenberg, is comfortably ahead in the polls. (Several wags have suggested Walter Mondale's campaign slogan should be "Vote for Mondale: He's Younger Than Lautenberg.")

Like Forrester's campaign against Torricelli, Norm Coleman's campaign was based almost completely on destroying Wellstone. But now the late Senator is Paul Wellstone of Blessed Memory, and by all accounts Fritz Mondale is a much beloved figure in Minnesota.

Geezers 2, Opponents 0.


Referendum on Bush?

President Bush is spending an enormous amount of political capital to elect Republicans. He has travelled to fundraisers and rallies ceaselessly since ending his August vacation, and Republican candidates across the nation have campaigned on their loyalty to the President and their support for both the war on terrorism and the proposed invasion of Iraq, whatever that's about.

Mike Allen writes in the Washington Post: "The meat, and even the order, of Bush's message varies little from stop to stop, with about 17 more rallies to go before Election Day. The speeches average 34 minutes and touch on education, tax cuts, Medicare, terrorists, Saddam Hussein, homeland security, the courage of the passengers aboard the hijacked plane that ran into the Pennsylvania soil, and the 'incredible good' that can come from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because of the spirit they awoke in America."

However, some Republicans realize that if their favored candidates don't win, it would reveal that support for the President isn't as deep as they want to believe it is.

The South Dakota Senate race is just one that's become a referendum on the President. The Republican candidate, John Thune, was hand-picked by Bush for the Senate race in South Dakota, a state Bush won easily in 2000. In October Thune ran television ads featuring images of Saddam Hussein that criticized incumbent Democrat Tim Johnson for voting against the President's fantasyland missile-defense "shield." More recently, according to E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, "One of Thune's recent television commercials beautifully evokes Bush's finest hours after Sept. 11, 2001, with touching scenes from Ground Zero."

"At that moment last year," Dionne continues, "George Bush could have carried almost any candidate to victory. The voters of this very Republican state will tell us in a week how true that still is."

On the other hand, New Hampshire voters don't want to hear how loyal their candidates are. They want to know how independent they are.

The Democratic Senate candidate, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, is running an ad in which her opponent, Representative John E. Sununu, says he has "never done anything that I thought politically wasn't in the interest of the Republican Party." In a state in which 37 percent of the electorate is independent, party hacks need not bother to campaign. Both candidates are letting voters know how often they disagree with their own parties. The candidates are running neck and neck, according to the polls.

Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina has passed beyond geezerhood -- he will be 100 years old in December and will retire. Democratic Senate candidate Alex Sanders made news when he took swipes at former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "He supports gay rights; he supports banning all handguns; he supports abortion. His wife kicked him out, and he moved in with two gay men and a Shih Tzu. Is that South Carolina values? I don't think so." They probably aren't, but Mayor Rudy is a hero now. Sanders's campaign manager issued a statement saying Sanders was just kidding.


Goodbye to a Happy Warrior

A public memorial to Senator Wellstone was held Tuesday evening at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. More than 15,000 people lined up to enter the auditorium, even after local radio stations told people there were no more seats and to watch the memorial on TV. Political VIPs who attended included former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, as well as Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Edward Kennedy, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott. Comedian and author Al Franken, actor Michael J. Fox, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson were also there, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Who wasn't there: President Bush, who let it be known through spokesman Ari Fleischer that Presidents don't bother about attending the funerals of mere Senators. Vice President Cheney offered to go, but the Senator's surviving sons politely requested he stay home. The reason given for the request was that the Vice President's extensive security entourage would be obtrusive.

The Reverend Mr. Jackson said he met Paul Wellstone, then a college professor, in the 1980s at a meatpackers' strike. When Wellstone was Minnesota state manager for Jackson's presidential campaign in 1988, he crossed the color line, Jackson said. When Wellstone voted against welfare cutbacks, he took a step across the poverty line. His refusal to support a unilateral attack on Iraq was a step across the peace line. "So he passed all the great tests of character," Jackson said.

In a few days "someone will replace Paul Wellstone's seat, but not his space. A huge space of conscience," Jackson said. "Paul was a man of conscience … We must all work to fill that void."

Amen, Brother Jackson.


- Barbara O'Brien, creator of The Mahablog!, is a New York resident and a freelance writer. She will be providing a regular column for Scoop on the US Elections. Readers are invited to visit The Mahablog! and see the Timeline of Terror!

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