Is He Nuts?

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

"The other thing is, you also have to really believe you'd be a really good president. It's not just to be out there speaking and organizing: You don't do it unless you believe that you could be a good president. So those are the things that I've just been thinking through and coming to terms with. And I want to do this. I really do."

Wellstone talks often about a presidential crusade being "inside of him." It has become a mantra, suggesting that he views the campaign as a calling, as something a voice in his head is compelling him to do. But does the voice wake him up at night, his mind racing and scheming? He laughs again, and then is silent. Forciea is now piloting his way through the streets of Des Moines, nearing the Embassy Suites hotel.

"No," Wellstone begins. He is choosing his words carefully, or he's just plain tired. Or both. "It's not so much that I can't stop thinking about it day and night, it's more, it's more--uh, it's more... It's the way you think about what you most believe in, how you can make the biggest difference, and if you believe that this is the way to do it; that's what I mean. That's what I mean."

 

 

With the first caucuses and primaries of 2000 still more than 13 months away, there are a host of unknowns for Wellstone and everyone else who's trying to register on the national radar. What will the ultimate Democratic field look like, and how many players will it include? What will become of President Clinton's travails, and how will it reflect upon his vice president? Regardless of Clinton's fate, how will the public's reaction to the impeachment process affect the 2000 elections? What will become of an economy that is showing signs of uncertainty after a nearly decade-long upswing, and how will that alter the political landscape? Will Jerry Springer run?

The real answer to all of the above is: Nobody knows, any more than anyone can predict the final score of Super Bowl XXXIII. In addition to Gore, Democrats in the race could include former New York senator and ex-basketball star Bill Bradley, as well as Massachusetts senator John Kerry and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey bowed out in December, citing Gore's formidable war chest as one factor. And some wonder if Jesse Jackson will run again. A December 6 Washington Post story about Gore and his challengers didn't even mention Wellstone; the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll didn't include his name in the lineup of potential candidates. Other polls have found Wellstone's presidential support in the low single digits.

Conventional wisdom says Wellstone doesn't have a prayer. But that wisdom said the same about him in 1990, as it did about Jesse Ventura in 1998. Taking note of both upsets is one of Wellstone's chief gambits, aimed at convincing people that the unthinkable is possible. "I don't even know if I'd want to be in any other kind of race," he allows. "That sounds a little cocky, but the other part of it is, it does make it all the more fun, right? And all the more challenging."

Like Ventura, Wellstone was a wrestler. "It's the only way you can get elected anymore," jokes Wellstone, who competed in the sport in high school--in the 98-103-pound weight class, where he came in second in the Virginia state championships in his sophomore and junior years--and college. "You have to wrestle. That's the key to political success." Serious again, he concedes that "there's a huge overlap" between his supporters and Ventura's.

It's an admission he couldn't have made during the gubernatorial campaign, when he stumped for Skip Humphrey; but since then, he says, many of his own supporters have "come up and said, 'Wasn't that great what Jesse did?'" Ventura's campaign featured a number of Wellstone alumni--including Minneapolis ad man Bill Hillsman, who created both Wellstone's legendary 1990 spots and the Ventura action figure.

What's more, insiders say Ventura's campaign followed a strategy almost identical to that used by Wellstone supporters in 1990: They targeted people who wouldn't bother to vote for "more of the same," but responded to the plainspoken appeal of a populist. In 1990, Wellstone's forces blanketed suburban precincts to gain the critical edge; they also targeted young voters, first-timers, and those who typically voted for third-party efforts. In 1998, Ventura's campaign did exactly the same.

Dean Barkley, who ran against Wellstone as a Reform Party candidate for Senate in 1996 and served as campaign chair for Jesse Ventura's coup, sees parallels up to a point: "I think they both attempt to appeal, for lack of a better term, to the average voter. I think they both try to come across as anti-elitist and as outsiders. They both support campaign finance reform. Where they disagree is the role of government and the scope of government in solving everyday problems. Jesse's for less, Paul's for more."

The question, of course, is whether the Wellstone/Ventura appeal is limited to Minnesota, historically friendly turf for maverick candidates. Campaign manager Lucas acknowledges that to get anywhere in the presidential campaign, Wellstone must repeat and expand his Minnesota success in bringing out the disaffected: "Our task is not to take the pie and cut it up a different way. Our task is to make the pie bigger."

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