Is He Nuts?

Turncoat. Chickenshit. Radical. Minnesota's senior senator has been called a lot of things. But president?

"Does it make sense to go around the room? I'm Paul, and thank you very much for being here." It's 8:35 p.m. on an unseasonably warm winter evening, and Minnesota's senior senator is seated at a Formica table at the Ames Public Library in central Iowa. This is the last stop of the first meeting-filled day of his 14th swing through the state that holds the nation's first presidential caucus.

When he entered the room with the high-school gymnasium ambience, Paul Wellstone reflexively doffed his gray jacket, hanging it on the back of a chair. It was a small gesture, but an instinctively political one--like the way he circled the table, offering his hand and a quick hello to the dozen-or-so students, retirees, and political activists who've come to hear him talk. He calls out to latecomers, sounding a bit like the earnest facilitator of an AA meeting in progress: "Hi! Thank you for coming. We're making introductions." He talks, softly gesturing with his hands--they stroke the air, stutter, jab, dance--and looking around to lock eyes with any that engage his gaze. He segues into the evening's topic in an offhand, here's-a-thought manner: "I want to just sort of go through what's inside of me."

His campaign, he says, will be a bid "to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." The phrase summarizes his conviction that the party has come unmoored in the era of Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the acknowledged front-runner for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination. It has become a regular refrain over the past couple of years, as Wellstone has addressed gatherings around the country to gauge support for a "very populist and very anti-establishment" run for the White House.

"I wouldn't have any credibility with anybody if I told you it was going to be easy," he says. Many in the room worked on the campaign of Iowa governor-elect Pete Vilsack, the first Democrat to win the post in 30 years. Vilsack was an underdog--at one point he trailed Republican Jim Lightfoot by 20 percentage points--who stumped and won on health care, environmental, and fair-tax issues. The parallels aren't lost on the audience.

Wellstone tells the small assembly that he wants their opinions, their advice, their input. He hasn't, after all, announced that he's running for president yet; an official declaration isn't expected until February. He spreads his arms and asks: "Whaddya think?"

He knows the questions that will follow; he has answered them dozens, hundreds of times. A weathered academic bluntly makes known that he's concerned about Wellstone's lack of connections to big contributors. "I will not be the big-money candidate," concedes the senator, who has opined loud and long on the need for campaign-finance reform. A gray-haired woman primly but directly asks: "Is your closet clean, with regard to skeletons?" Wellstone looks her in the eye and solemnly, chastely answers, "Yes."

There's talk, again, of how the Democrats have lost their way in the political wilderness. "I thought the '90s was going to be a very different decade," Wellstone allows. "I had very high hopes." And then: "I think an all-out populist, downright anti-establishment campaign would be historically significant, at a minimum." The caveat is vintage Wellstone, betraying both his near-manic exuberance and his insistence on discovering silver linings even in defeat.

As the conversation starts to wind down, people hand in white cards they've filled out--names, addresses--to help out with the campaign. As Wellstone makes the rounds again for small talk, Curtis Bauer, 75 and a lifetime Iowan, offers his summation of the evening: "This is the second time I've met the senator, and I like what I hear--very much so." This, too, is presidential politics--several hours in the car, half a dozen advisers, all for a few precinct organizers and word-of-mouth propagandists.

Wellstone steps out of the library into the balmy December air. There are no media hordes here to follow his every move and gesture. One last handshake and he's back in the big red rental car, heading for Des Moines and another day on the trail, through the dark.

 

 

Wellstone revels in the role of the underdog. Today he may be Minnesota's senior senator, comfortably ensconced in a second term he says will be his last. But he began building his base from scratch a decade ago on northern Minnesota's Iron Range, not by networking within the party system--although he'd been a member of the Democratic National Committee--but through pure roll-up-your-sleeves political scut work.

The son of a Russian Jewish immigrant had spent most of his formative years in Arlington, Va., before heading off to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; in 1969 he landed in a job teaching political science at Carleton College in Northfield. He made time for political activities, getting arrested along with his students during a Vietnam War protest in the 1970s, fighting power and meatpacking companies in the '80s. In 1982 he ran for state auditor against then-incumbent Arne Carlson and lost by a landslide; in 1988 he served as Minnesota co-chair for Jesse Jackson's presidential bid, which captured a third of the delegates to the national Democratic convention through a coalition of hard-hats, progressives, and students.

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