The Brilliant Demise of Allen Quist

At the 1998 Republican convention, the conservative crusade comes Coleman's way

But Quist's stirring freedom-from-slavery speech overcame the reservations of Schroers and hundreds of others. As predicted, Coleman captured just over 40 percent of the vote on the first ballot. But Quist emerged a strong second, with around 33 percent, beating out Benson by 8 percentage points. Quist had confounded the prognosticators and proved himself a force to be reckoned with inside the Target Center. Ironically, he'd also doomed any chance he had of playing power broker at the convention.

From the beginning, Coleman and his supporters feared that a Benson-Quist alliance could deprive the mayor of the endorsement. They reasoned that with all three candidates under pledge to abide by the party's decision, a hung convention would enable the two underdogs to live and fight another day in the primary. Consequently, Coleman's backers inside the party bureaucracy--most notably GOP chair Bill Cooper--had rewritten the rules to facilitate an endorsement, disqualifying, for example, any candidate who didn't receive at least 20 percent of the vote after the third ballot. Nevertheless, while a majority of delegates understood that endorsing Quist would amount to political suicide for the party in a statewide race against the Democrats, nearly a quarter of those on the floor were staunch Quist supporters unwilling to go down without a fight. That put Quist in a position to bargain for concessions on such key issues as abortion and education with either Coleman or Benson in exchange for his votes. It was widely rumored that Quist had already discussed with both rivals what it would take to make a deal: an appointment to be state commissioner of either Education or Children and Family Services were the most frequently mentioned prizes. If Benson found herself in the 30 to 40 percent range on the first two or three ballots, Quist would be in an excellent position to determine the fate of the convention.

But the first ballot produced a surprise political equation. Suddenly Quist had the better shot and needed Benson's help to put him within endorsement range. That wasn't going to happen. Granted, supporters of Benson and Coleman indulged in a nasty exchange of letters, questioning each other's conservative credentials less than three weeks ago, and there was no love lost between the two. But Benson and Quist were hardly bosom buddies, either. After all, she was Arne Carlson's running mate when Carlson toppled Quist, the endorsed candidate, in the '94 primary. What's more, her campaign this year included such movers and shakers as Sen. Rod Grams and former Gov. Al Quie, who understood the political cost of paving the way for another Quist endorsement.

On the second ballot, Coleman grabbed 4 percent from both sides, garnering nearly half of the total delegates, while Quist slipped to just under 30 percent and Benson fell further. At the close of the third ballot, Benson plummeted to under 20 percent of the vote and was disqualified, while Coleman surged to 56 percent and Quist held firm at half that. With Coleman needing just a quarter of the Benson holdouts to secure the endorsement, the fourth ballot was a mere formality when 67 percent of the convention's delegates put the mayor over the top.

Throughout the convention, Coleman did what he came to do: flex enough organizational muscle to buttress his air of invincibility, and mollify the party's right wing enough to be an acceptable consolation prize without making promises that might hamstring him during the general election. Keeping with the spin, one of his endorsement speeches was given by a Youth for Christ worker who reminded the delegates that Pat Robertson and Ronald Reagan had also switched parties. In his own speech, Coleman noted that St. Paul is a city of two domes, the state Capitol and the St. Paul Cathedral, "and it is not by accident but by design that the Cathedral is on the higher hill. We know who is in charge, and it is not the Minnesota Legislature."

When it comes to political dancing, perhaps only Bill Clinton can match Coleman's ability to traipse across the ideological spectrum with one foot planted solidly in the mainstream. A short two years ago, Coleman co-chaired the Clinton-Gore campaign in Minnesota and supported the re-election of the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, Paul Wellstone. Today, he is the gubernatorial standard-bearer for a party that endorsed Wellstone's antithesis, Allen Quist, four years ago. Even more remarkable, the 1998 endorsement of Coleman comes with no strings attached.

As the losing candidates joined Coleman on stage for a strained show of unity, the winner was already looking ahead to the next dance, turning away from Quist and toward Benson, who not coincidentally was chosen to propose that the convention make Coleman's endorsement unanimous. "All in favor say aye,'' the moderator cried; then, when it came time to solicit nays, skipped the show with a quick "We won't go any further." Quist's concession speech was restrained, to say the least.

As the convention wrapped up, it appeared likely that many of Quist's troops will proceed to sit on their hands during the Coleman campaign--and maybe cross over to vote for pro-life Democrat Doug Johnson in the DFL primary, a sweet bit of revenge for those who believe pro-choice DFLers helped Carlson eclipse Quist in the '94 primary. Then they'll hold their noses as they pull the Coleman lever in November. No matter. The hard reality is that their leader is out of political options. It's no secret that Quist and Coleman would not make a good pair out on the hustings. Immediately after the convention, Quist told reporters, "I haven't gone fishing since the campaign, and I'm experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go."

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