Is He Nuts?

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

Even that degree of success, however, will take a considerable amount of money. In mid-December, Rick Kahn calculated that the campaign had surpassed the $600,000 mark and expected to end the year at around $700,000. Donations were averaging about $50 a pop, mainly in response to direct-mail solicitations all over the nation. His candidate's well-known aversion to picking up the phone and asking people for money notwithstanding, campaign manager Lucas hopes to raise more than $7 million next year, and to qualify early in the year for federal matching funds. (To do so, a candidate must garner at least $5,000 in each of at least 20 states.) "We gotta ask people who are working for a living to give us $50," Lucas reckons, who says it's "just bullshit to say that you can't run a good campaign on $15 million."

Wellstone's fundraising goals pale compared to what recent contenders have spent. During the nominating process in 1996 alone, the Clinton campaign burned more than $38 million. On the Republican side, Bob Dole shelled out more than $42 million, Steve Forbes spent some $41 million, and Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan used up $28 million and $24 million respectively.

By comparison, Faucheux characterizes the money Wellstone has raised so far as "not particularly impressive." But, he adds, if winning isn't the only goal, Wellstone won't need such a fearsome war chest. "If it's a protest candidacy, it takes a lot less money. What Wellstone has to do"--get his issues injected into the campaign--"could conceivably be done in the $5 to $10 million range."

Wellstone bristles at the "protest candidacy" tag. "I don't particularly like that label, because that's not what it is. It's an effort to win the race," he maintains, again invoking his 1990 upset. "I just never have paid much attention to pundits, period."

Which leaves the question: Just how big is Paul Wellstone's ego? He will only cop to being optimistic, not egomaniacal. "I'm always pretty confident, and wouldn't set out on this journey if I didn't think we could do really well," he enthuses. "In almost everything I've done in my whole adult life, it's not been difficult. I've had a really lucky and good life."



A week after the swing through Iowa, Wellstone is back home for a low-budget, $25-a-head fundraiser at RiverCentre in St. Paul. The room is lined with beachball-sized green helium balloons which hover ten feet in the air at the end of silver-foil stalks; they look like trees in a sci-fi forest. A 12-by-20-foot flag dominates the hall.

At 7 p.m., longtime DFL activist Josie Johnson introduces "The next First Lady of the U.S.A.!" In turn, Sheila Wellstone, in her still-lingering Kentucky twang, rises to introduce "the man I most believe in this country, my husband." As Wellstone climbs behind the lectern, the room explodes in applause along with garrulous whooping, hooting, and catcalling. Wellstone takes to the microphone to tease the enthusiastic crowd: "You're all crazy!"

"For you, Paul, for you!" hollers one woman.

Tonight there is no doffing of the jacket, no rolled-up sleeves. A bantam-sized, balding, smiling man in a dark blue suit stands onstage, dwarfed by the flag behind him. His shadow barely reaches the sixth stripe from the bottom.

He makes the obligatory remarks, the what-a-great-intro, the I-can't-believe-this-turnout, the thank-you-so-much-for-coming. After a few casual pleasantries, he slips into a speech he knows by heart. "Let me tell you why this presidential campaign is inside of me," he begins, before anyone has noticed him revving up. "This presidential race is inside of me because I want to drive big money out of politics and I want to bring people..." Applause drowns him out, and pushes him on. The senator seizes on the energy, his voice climbing as he hammers the planks of his campaign.

"It is the will of the American people that we have affordable child care. It is the will of the American people that we invest in good public education. It is the will of the American people that when people work hard they be able to have decent wages. It is the will of the American people that we have good health care for all of our citizens. This is the America I seek; that is why this presidential race is inside of me." More applause.

"This is an all-out effort to move our country from a culture of apathy to a politics of engagement. It's about citizen politics beating money politics. It's about restoring democracy, taking it back, building it of, by, and for the people...."

This is Wellstone at his best--delivering the credo, sentence by incantatory sentence, until he's bellowing, sweating, and red in the face. The "Run, Paul, run!" chant kicks in on cue.

"I will shout it from the mountaintop that surely with an economy at peak performance it is not right that one out of four children under the age of three are growing up poor in our country, and one out of two children of color under the age of three are growing up poor in our country today. I am running"--quick, in the heat, he catches himself--"or thinking about running..."

« Previous Page
Next Page »