War Torn

As a young radical, Norm Coleman protested the Vietnam War. Now his support for the Iraq quagmire may swallow his political career.

On a recent Tuesday, more than 50 people gather on the shores of Bryant Lake in Eden Prairie. They tote placards reading, "Bush Lied, Iraqis Died," and "Support the Bridges, End the War." A massive red-and-white banner reads "Dump Norm!"

Rick Hanson, whose 21-year-old son is a Marine currently serving his second tour of duty in Iraq, sums up the mood of the crowd when he refers to Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota) as "Little Bush."

"We all know the truth and we will not let these warmongers run our country anymore," Hanson shouts.

The occasion is a Coleman fundraiser featuring President Bush held at the Eden Prairie home of Bill and Tani Austin, owners of Starkey Laboratories, a hearing-aid company. A white tent where the well-heeled GOP supporters will gather can be seen just across the lake from the protest. The admission price is $1,000 minimum. For $10,000, donors get the honor of being listed as a co-host. The event is expected to bring in roughly $1 million for Coleman's campaign coffers.

Although the Bush visit shines an unwelcome spotlight on Coleman's close association with the lame-duck president—and by extension, the Iraq war—most political observers say the senator is smart to make the cash grab now, banking on the belief that voters have short memories. He still has 14 months, after all, before he faces voters.

"Most people are not paying attention to politics right now," says Sarah Janecek, publisher of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter. "Given that you've got a couple of millionaires running against you, all you can do right now is focus on raising money."

Coleman will need all the help he can get. His re-election prospects suddenly look tenuous. A July SurveyUSA poll found that his approval ratings had bottomed out at 43 percent, with 48 percent disapproving of the job he's doing. As recently as January, Coleman seemed set to coast to an easy re-election, with 55 percent of those polled giving him the thumbs up.

Chris Cilliza, who writes "The Fix" blog for the Washington Post, lists Coleman's Senate seat as the seventh most likely to change hands in next year's elections. Democrats are eager to take on the wounded senator, with lawyer Mike Ciresi and celebrity Al Franken already jumping into the race.

The 58-year-old former mayor of St. Paul was handpicked by President Bush to vie for the Senate post in 2002, and he has frequently cited his White House access as an asset when it comes to bringing home the bacon. But with Bush's approval ratings at historic lows, Coleman's chumminess with the commander in chief has become a serious liability.

"It's clear he's in trouble because he tied his wagon to Bush," says political consultant Dean Barkley, who helped orchestrate Jesse Ventura's successful 1998 gubernatorial bid over Coleman and Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III. "I think it's that simple. He's still swimming with the shark that got him there, and it might end up biting him."

As public backing for the Iraq war has waned, Coleman has performed a delicate rhetorical dance, criticizing the administration's actions while voting in lockstep with the hawks. Last week Coleman, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, flew to Iraq to witness the situation firsthand. He will face a crucial test later this month, when Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress on the progress (or lack thereof) being made on the ground in Iraq.

"The most significant political calculation that Norm Coleman has to make is what he's going to say in the aftermath of General Petraeus's report," says Janecek. "At that point, I think members of Congress are going to have to make the call on where they stand and what they want to do."

Ironically, Coleman first rose to prominence as a radical antiwar protester during the Vietnam War on the campus of Hofstra University. Now, the notoriously nimble politician—who successfully switched from the DFL to the GOP in 1996—faces the prospect of having his political career upended by another unpopular war.

"I wonder how, on a personal level, Norman deals with the fact that 40 years ago he was the leading student antiwar activist on all of Long Island, and now there are war protesters demonstrating at his office, at his house, and wherever he speaks," says Norm Kent, who attended Hofstra with Coleman. "I wonder how he integrates that into his being, his essence, his soul."

Everyone called him Norman. The Brooklyn-born kid with the rail-thin physique and scraggly hair that extended halfway down his back was a striking presence at Hofstra University in the late '60s and early '70s. Carting a bullhorn around campus, he'd regularly lecture students about the immorality of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War. He was the Abbie Hoffman of the sleepy Long Island commuter college.

"Hofstra's pretty milquetoast, but he was the campus radical," recalls Peter Schmitt, who often sparred with Coleman back in their college days and is now the Republican minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature. "We clashed. We debated. We used to get into it all the time."

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