Don't Count Him Out

Faith & Loathing: On the Campaign Trail With Paul Wellstone

The scene last Tuesday morning at the Lake Harriet Bandshell must have looked curious to passersby out for a morning walk. There, in the middle of the stage, stood DFL Senate candidate Paul Wellstone, flanked by representatives of the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and Clean Water Action who had gathered to endorse him in his race against Rudy Boschwitz. A pack of reporters and camera crews lined the front of the stage in a half-circle; through the viewfinders it had the appearance of a real public gathering, but the audience consisted of one curious bicyclist who stuck around just long enough to realize that none of the microphones on the podium was connected to a loudspeaker. With five weeks to go in a race against an incumbent who's raised ten times as much money, Wellstone was looking to generate some media presence with his stand on the environment.

Not everybody caught the spirit of the enterprise. Ginny Yingling of the Sierra Club compared the 46-year-old Carleton College professor and long-time activist to "an efficient economy car," adding that "Rudy Boschwitz is not fuel-efficient"--an apt metaphor, maybe, but not the stuff colorful soundbites are made of. After the endorsements had been proffered, Wellstone was introduced. The environment is a children's issue, he said, "and we have to have enough faith in the future that we're willing to invest resources in the present. Rudy Boschwitz promotes himself as a champion of the Clean Air Bill, but he voted for the Nickles/Heflin amendment that would have gutted its enforceability." He concluded with a litany of rhetorical questions tailored for excerpting in the 10 or 15 seconds of airtime he was hoping to nab: Where's Rudy been in getting aid for farmers to get them off the chemical treadmill? Where's Rudy been in the efforts to reduce greenhouse gases? Where's Rudy been?

Wellstone didn't see the fruit of his efforts on the 6:00 news; by that time he was 100 miles south making his sixth stop of the day, this one in front of a group of Mower County DFLers at their headquarters in an Austin shopping mall. When he finally pulled into his Northfield driveway at 8:30 that night, he had put in a 14-hour day that included visits to an Albert Lea vo-tech, a Mower County sheep farm, a meeting of child care providers in Austin, and a senior citizens' dance, along with innumerable five-minute interviews with reporters and TV crews from area media. His fabled campaign bus--a retooled 1968 school bus that was fresh out of the shop, where it had gotten a new engine--had broken down twice; for the remainder of the week he'd travel by car. Over a late supper in a local pub, he called it a typical campaign day.

"Maybe there was a little more media today than usual," he said, "and maybe some of the crowds were a little smaller. But the issues you heard me talking about are the issues I always talk about." Wellstone's stump speeches revolve around a handful of key themes: a national health care plan; priority funding for education and child care; strict environmental enforcement; a farm policy that raises market rates and removes incentives for overproduction; and an approach to the federal budget that would pay for it all by striving to cut the defense budget and raise the income tax rates of the top 1 percent of the population. Wellstone never misses a chance to cast Rudy Boschwitz as the handmaiden of corporate America (or "the Senator from Exxon," as he's often labeled him), but frontal attacks on Boschwitz are rare; day in and day out, he's running one of the most issues-intensive campaigns for a major office in years.

The unabashedly idealistic tenor of the campaign is privately a source of bemusement for some reporters who've covered it, most of whom came of age post-Watergate. They all seem to like him, but they can't figure out his unadorned populism, or his apparent textbook faith in the potential--if not the 1990s reality--of the American political system. Wellstone, for his own part, credits much of his political sensibility to the civil rights movement of the '60s, and Martin Luther King in particular. "What I heard in King time and again," he said, "was his grounding the struggle in an attempt to get people to call on their best selves. He called on us to be the best country we could be. And that impressed me, particularly in contrast to those elements on the Left who made their appeals based on hate."


But if months of chasing the specter of Rudy Boschwitz around the Minnesota countryside have taught Wellstone anything, it's that high-minded stump speeches in front of modest crowds can only take you so far. Name recognition is still an issue--polls show almost a quarter of Minnesotans still don't know who he is--and so is the media's attention to what he believes are the key issues in the campaign. At 5:00 last Wednesday morning, the day after his press conference, Wellstone was storming around his Northfield home with the StarTribune's Marketplace section in his fist.

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