Norm's Conquest

Some people compare Norm Coleman to Ronald Reagan. They have a point.

In 1970 Norman Coleman was just another long-haired radical protesting the draft at Hofstra University. But even then he knew how to work a crowd, talk its talk, capitalize on the moment. "I know these conservative kids don't fuck or get high like we do (purity, you know)," he opined in the student newspaper apropos an upcoming student-senate election. "Already the cries of motherhood, apple pie, and Jim Buckley reverberate thorough the halls of the Student Center. Everyone watch out, the 1950s bobby-sox generation is about to take over."

Over the years, as the political tides have shifted, Coleman has slowly, surely drifted along. After graduating, the New Yorker eased into the Democratic Party's mainstream, got a law degree at the University of Iowa, and went to work for Skip Humphrey in Minnesota's crusading office of the attorney general. He worked there as a human-rights attorney, criminal prosecutor, and lobbyist for 17 years. In 1993 he ran for mayor of St. Paul--as a Democrat, but without the DFL endorsement--and won.

It wasn't long into his term that rumors started flying about Coleman getting ready to run for governor. The mayor steadfastly denied them. But behind the scenes, he was quietly talking to hotshots in the Republican Party. He struck up friendships with Vin Weber, a Minnesota congressman turned powerful D.C. lobbyist and Gingrichian revolutionary; then-Minnesota GOP Chair Chris Georgacas; and Bill Cooper, head of TCF Financial System and a Republican fundraising powerhouse.

Ken Avidor

In December 1996, less than a year before easily winning re-election over DFLer Sandy Pappas, Coleman told reporters he was "switching jerseys" and becoming a Republican. Within days of the announcement, according to phone records from his office, he began to trade calls with Republican national pollster Frank Luntz, an architect of the party's Contract with America.

During the mayoral race, Coleman's face started showing up on billboards all the way to the Iron Range. TV commercials--paid for with contributions from suburban donors and big-business interests--were broadcast statewide, telling people he'd rejuvenated St. Paul, recaptured pro hockey, brought the "pride back."

In less than the time it takes most fledgling politicians to move from the school board to the city council, the 47-year-old became the darling of the GOP elite and the envy of his former DFL allies. Blois Olson, a St. Paul-based political consultant affiliated with the DFL, compares Coleman's already mythical public persona to that of the late Hubert Humphrey. Republican National Committeeman Jack Meeks likens the mayor's long-term potential to that of another former Democrat--Ronald Reagan.

But Coleman has one more group to woo, one more ideological hurdle to jump. His remarkable transformation, it turns out, hasn't stopped at the moderate end of the Republican Party: Over the past year he has started a love affair with the pro-life, anti-gay-rights, hard-line activists who in 1994 powered Allen Quist's gubernatorial run. It is that group which, by Coleman's calculus, will propel his bid for the state Capitol. If his plan works out, the onetime radical could soon become the first Minnesota governor to owe his office to the Republican Right.

With just a few weeks to go until the March caucuses--where activists from each party will choose the delegates who bestow party endorsements--many Republican insiders believe Quist, who's running for governor himself, is about to throw his support behind Coleman. They say Quist's switch could come as early as next week, when the mayor is expected to officially begin his bid to succeed Arne Carlson. (On Monday, Coleman sent out a coy press release announcing that "he has reached a decision regarding a possible run for governor," and that he would make a public statement on the matter Sunday.) "Do I know if Allen will get behind Coleman now or at the convention? No," says one St. Paul Republican and two-time delegate. "But all indications are that he will do it sooner than later." Neither Coleman nor Quist would comment for this article.

Of course, Coleman is not alone in his quest for power. Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson, a former state senator and pro-life conservative, has been pressing the flesh and vying for delegates for close to a year. And while Benson and her supporters insist she's ahead of Coleman, many insiders say the newcomer has momentum on his side.

"Eighty percent of the delegates to the convention will be repeats [from '94]," says Republican political consultant Sarah Janecek. "And if there's one thing that's happened in the last five years, it's that the conservative movement has moderated toward focusing on people who not only agree with them on the issues, but who they think can win a general election. And right now, they have to know Norm is red hot."

Six years ago Tom Gerard, now the vice chairman of the 8th Congressional District GOP, was driving home from his union job at the Potlatch paper mill in Cloquet when he heard Allen Quist speaking on the radio. This guy didn't sound slick like most politicians, Gerard remembers thinking, but inviting: Here was a rural, grassroots gubernatorial candidate who would battle for fiscal responsibility and basic biblical values. On the spot, Gerard decided to attend an organizing meeting 18 miles down the highway in Duluth.

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