Is He Nuts?

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

It was Jackson's Rainbow Coalition that served as Wellstone's organizing core when he announced his bid for Rudy Boschwitz's U.S. Senate seat the following year. Few in the political establishment believed that Boschwitz--the folksy plywood tycoon who was one of the Senate's most formidable and unapologetic fundraisers--could be beat. Wellstone's supporters fanned out across rec rooms and union halls to round up delegates in the 1990 precinct caucuses, amassing enough votes for the DFL endorsement and a later primary victory over then-state agriculture commissioner Jim Nichols.

By September, Wellstone trailed Boschwitz by 15 percentage points; the Republican widened his lead to 18 points in October. Wellstone and his ragtag crowd of union activists, peaceniks, and political-whizzes-in-the-making were assumed to be dead in the water. But when the final numbers came in, the Harpo Marx-haired college professor had beat the well-financed incumbent with 50.5 percent of the vote.

Eight years later, Wellstone still doesn't carry the air of portentous self-righteousness one might expect from a U.S. senator. Maybe it's that at age 54, he's still just a 5-foot-5-and-a-pinch guy who's losing his curly hair and walks with a bit of a limp thanks to his back trouble. He lacks the steely gaze, the rigid jaw, the political lineage of a Gore. But on the campaign trail, that unpolitical air often looks like an asset: Wellstone's fire-and-brimstone stump speeches, and his compelling one-on-one manner have captivated Minnesotans to the point where Star Tribune editorialist Lori Sturdevant observed, after watching crowds mob the senator at the State Fair, that "Hubert [Humphrey II]'s back, and his name is Wellstone." In a rematch against Rudy Boschwitz in 1996, Wellstone was the National Republican Senatorial Committee's number-one target; soft-money-financed ads called him "embarrassingly liberal." This time, he won by almost 200,000 votes, or 9 points.

You don't have to spend long around Wellstone to understand that he is dead serious about running for president, and that in his mind it's no stunt. What you wouldn't immediately know is how long he has been thinking about it. This is no idle notion that struck him one day as he surveyed likely contenders for the 2000 race. He admits to having turned the idea over in his mind as far back as 1994, even before he geared up for his second Senate race.

The Wellstone Presidential Exploratory Committee was founded last April; it has been raising money via direct mail since May, allowing Wellstone to travel to key primary states and to hire a staff. Dan Lucas, a self-described Beltway insider, officially started as campaign manager the day after the November election; his résumé includes stints at the Democratic National Committee, as deputy field director for Sen. John Glenn's 1984 presidential bid, and as political director for the Service Employees International Union. Pat Forciea, a key operative in Wellstone's 1990 bid, is helping to assemble the campaign's Midwestern organization. Bill Dauster, who spent 12 years on Capitol Hill (most recently as the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources Democratic chief of staff and chief counsel), signed on as speechwriter in July. The campaign's brain trust also includes Wellstone's wife of 35 years, Sheila, and Wellstone's longtime friend Rick Kahn, who serves as treasurer for the exploratory committee.

But assembling a staff--even a highly credentialed one--is the tiniest part of running for president. Mounting a credible campaign takes money, upwards of $50 million by some estimates. It also takes, the way the pundits see it, a message that pleases most of the people, most of the time. And it takes big-time name recognition, the kind you either buy with advertising or gain free from media publicity. Since Wellstone doesn't have any of the above, the key question from supporters and detractors alike sums up in three words: Are you nuts?

Wellstone pinches the skin around his eyes. He's exhausted, but even through the fatigue he seems animated by a restless energy. He shifts in his seat, tucking under a leg, and shifts again. He leans forward to hug the front seat's headrest. The exercise seems to relax him. He stares out into the blackness beyond the spacious backseat of the red Crown Victoria LX as Forciea drives on into the night.

The question hangs in the air as the car rumbles on. Wellstone finally laughs, then stops and becomes dead serious. His voice is nearly inaudible over the engine's hum. "No."

That's the short answer. But Wellstone isn't given to short answers. It's a habit likely held over from academia: There's never just one reason for anything. The question itself requires examination. He turns it over, zeroing in on what bothers him about it. It is reflective, he concludes, of the conventional, middle-of-the-road politics he plans not just to challenge, but to assail, to overcome, to transcend. And so hearing it again and again in some fundamental way disappoints him. "The 'Are you nuts?' question is not 'How can a person possibly win?' It's more 'Who wants to get into this kind of politics?' because of the viciousness of it," he figures.

He stares out at cornfields lost in darkness, trying to explain why he views a presidential bid as a way to force discussion of issues--universal health care, strong public education, living-wage jobs--he thinks no one else will raise. "From the point of view of trying to turn things upside-down or right side up, trying to challenge people to be part of the civic enterprise, trying to move to a politics of engagement, what better way than an all-out presidential race?" he asks, as if it were a natural conclusion. "If you want to help shape the debate in the country, there's no better way to do that than in a presidential race. That's point one. I mean, that's how I began to think about it.

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