Is He Nuts?
"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.
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.
"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."
Of Ventura, Lucas says: "I think your governor-elect sends a message to the political class in this country. The bottom line is, here's a guy who connects with voters."
"This is no stump speech. I'm just saying this the way it comes into my head." Wellstone is warming up in front of an early-morning crowd in Des Moines--three dozen people at the most, mostly local labor activists who've assembled in one of the cookie-cutter conference rooms at the Embassy Suites Hotel. Forget the podium. Wellstone is working into his signature sway pattern without obstacles, left hand planted in his pants pocket, right index finger jabbing the air as he careens into a diatribe against consolidation in the pork industry.
"I might just as well run like Teddy Roosevelt, and talk about trust-busting!" He's rocking on his heels, and it seems for a moment as if his index finger could propel him into orbit. "I want to galvanize people...I think if we're going to start a prairie fire, we can do it here!" The crowd applauds.
By midday, Wellstone's entourage is decamped two hours to the east at the spartan Sheraton Four Point Hotel in Cedar Rapids. Wellstone and treasurer Rick Kahn are off on a trip to the gym to satisfy Wellstone's daily exercise routine, leaving Lucas to recline in the lobby and reflect on the campaign-in-progress. He's not sure if the "anti-establishment" whoop his candidate keeps offering up is quite the right cry to be letting fly out there.
"Part of what we're doing right now is working out the language we're going to use," says Lucas; for his part, he might prefer something along the lines of "running against the status quo." He hastens to add that "I support him obviously 100 percent. I just don't think that I'd say 'anti-establishment.' But this is semantics, and we'll work it out."
Later that day Wellstone again doesn't mince words at United Auto Workers Local 1024. The hall is filled with gray hair and union windbreakers. A table holds baskets of candy corn, crackers, cheese, chips, and popcorn. In the kitchenette area, two men stand guard over the tap lines of Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Lite, and two boxes of wine. The speaker introducing Wellstone in front of a faded American flag exhorts attendees "who care and are sober enough" to pick up some of his literature from the back table.
Wellstone launches into a table-pounding speech about winning the race through "sweat equity," a working stiff's metaphor. "I'm going to fight for family farmers, I'm going to fight for working people, I'm going to take on the corporate money!" he shouts. As he shakes his fist, it's impossible to imagine Gore delivering the same line.
The evening ends in Iowa City, at a student-heavy gathering on the University of Iowa campus. "Are you tough enough to do it?" asks a man from the crowd. The ex-wrestler, college professor, senior senator doesn't blink. He just says, "Yeah."
When Wellstone limped his battered green campaign bus into Washington after the 1990 election, he was an instant outcast. For reasons that eluded most Beltway insiders, a bunch of nuts out on the prairie had elected this slightly disheveled, five-five firebrand in place of a respected incumbent (no other sitting senator lost his job that year). Within days of his arrival, the new senator managed to commit several blunders in protocol and judgment, including an anti-Operation Desert Storm press conference at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When he regaled George Bush with his views on the war at a White House reception, the president was heard to mumble, "Who is this chickenshit?"
Wellstone buckled down, studied up on Senate protocol, hired Washington insiders. He became a kind of First Call for Help for grassroots groups seeking a legislative sponsor, and traveled around the country to support like-minded politicians such as Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold. He championed campaign finance reform and renewable energy, resisted cuts to education spending and social programs, railed against corporate bosses and union-busters. And, over and over, he hammered universal health care--a topic to which he'd been introduced in high school, when his family struggled to pay the bills for his brother's treatment for mental illness.
Yet on this defining issue, success eluded him as either his colleagues or the president turned against sweeping reform. Wellstone was limited to tinkering at the edges; his successes included a bill requiring that health insurance companies cover mental illness the same way they cover physical ailments. "A lot of the work I do is small victories," he concedes. "Important, but small victories."
In 1996 Wellstone beat the odds again, becoming the only Senate Democrat up for re-election to have voted against the Clinton-approved welfare reform package. The day before the president's second inaugural, it was Wellstone, not Clinton, who graced the cover of the Washington Post magazine in an affectionate piece penned by columnist and Brookings Institution fellow E.J. Dionne Jr., the author of They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era. "Wellstone's re-election violated every conventional presumption about the country's direction in 1996," he wrote.
In the past Wellstone has been careful not to attack a president with whom he shares, at least, a party affiliation. But as he gears up to challenge Clinton's hand-picked successor, his criticism has become more blunt. "Where to start?" he says with an exasperated chuckle. "When President Clinton was elected and Democrats had a majority in the House and the Senate, I thought, given what he was saying in his campaign, this was going to be an opportunity to finally pass universal health-care coverage legislation, to reorder our priorities, have less money spent on the Pentagon and more money spent on children and education.
"It seems hard to believe, doesn't it? Health care, education, jobs, reform, environment--I thought it was going to be a decade of real progressive change. That clearly did not happen."
But if the Bill Clinton of the 1992 campaign trail is no more, the Wellstone of 1998 is also different from the Wellstone of 1990. The senator-elect, who in 1990 vehemently opposed Desert Storm, supported the December bombing of Iraq. That stance outraged some of Wellstone's most loyal supporters and caused peace-and-justice activists to protest at his office.
"I hate to be this way," Wellstone offers in response, "but I don't know that anybody there knows me so well to know what my position would have been years ago." He says that in 1991, he believed the U.S. to be acting too hastily. Not anymore: "As uncomfortable as I am about bombing and the fact that there are going to be innocent people that are going to die, which I hate, I didn't think there was any other choice after seven to eight years of trying to get compliance. I thought it was the only thing that can be done."
The Wellstone of today also voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex unions. In the months between Wellstone's first public support for the bill and his vote for it he met and talked with many gay and lesbian supporters who were infuriated by his position. Did he vote for the Act, and support this year's bombing, with an eye toward a presidential bid? He insists the answer is "absolutely not."
Wellstone does admit that being a U.S. senator has changed him. He says that when he was teaching and organizing, he was mostly surrounded by people who agreed with him; that hasn't been the case in the Senate. "I've now been in many, many places and situations where I meet and have visited with people who see things very differently," he says. "And I've learned a lot."
Presidential hopefuls make as many pilgrimages as they can afford to Iowa and New Hampshire, the nation's first primary state. But in 1992, recall that Bill Clinton won neither. Iowa Democrats went for native son Senator Tom Harkin, who got little opposition on his home turf, while Clinton came in second to Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire. At one point, conventional wisdom held that Clinton was politically dead in the wake of disclosures about Gennifer Flowers and his evasion of military service. Of course, that was before the pundits realized that "Slick Willie" had more political lives than Marion Barry.
But there's a new twist to presidential politics: California has moved its primary up to the earliest allowable date, March 7, the same day as the New York primary, and one week before the Super Tuesday primaries in the South. New Hampshire will still be first, but after that the dominoes will fall quickly. Most observers agree that this front-loading of the primary system favors moneyed candidates, and will vastly compress the time it takes to anoint a nominee. An underdog could get clobbered early.
The current perception among Washington politics-watchers is that Wellstone is a long shot, but that because he'll offer a striking contrast with other candidates the Minnesotan could emerge as a key challenger to Gore. Still, says Ron Faucheux, editor of the D.C.-based magazine Campaigns and Elections, "People in Washington do not take him seriously as a presidential candidate. He's not considered a serious threat; he's not even a considered a serious underdog. I think there's a lot of people here who do not see him as a presidential-type figure. He's seen more as a gadfly type."
That said, Faucheux believes the political establishment underestimates Wellstone's ability to do well in some primaries. His presence in the running, Faucheux reasons, "would give true-blue liberals around the country a chance to voice their protest against the Democratic Party moving too far to the center. And Wellstone could be the vehicle for that protest." The result, he says, could be that Wellstone garners "enough votes for people to take notice" (like, say, Jackson or former California governor and 1992 presidential gadfly Jerry Brown) and run second or third in the Democratic field. That could mean increased national visibility for the senator and his platform--but not electoral victory.
Says Brookings's Dionne: "I have always had the impression that if this campaign is about anything, it's about organizing and activating progressive wings of the party that have been either asleep or alienated. [Wellstone's] heart has always been with movement politics, and I could imagine that part of what he has in mind is to bring together elements of the left or the progressive side of which he could be a spokesman. If it works, it would be something like Pat Robertson's campaign was for the Christian conservatives."
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..."
The crowd seizes on his slip and whoops its approval. He's on his own turf, and savors the homecoming for all it's worth. He hits on universal health care. Rails against corporate interests and the favors granted them by government. Decries a wage scale that forces workers to hold down two jobs to make ends meet. He races on, to the global economy, national defense, terrorism, human rights, until it seems the onslaught blurs and suddenly bogs him down.
He pauses, hesitating and glancing down at his notes for guidance. For someone who rarely speaks with so much as a scrap of paper, it's an odd moment. But this is still a dry run. He is still practicing, still ironing out the language, getting the rhythm of his message down. Paul Wellstone, for president, is just now finding his bearings. He's gearing up for giving some version of this speech for at least the next 16 months.
"Tonight I am with a group of activists who have helped me. And since I'm speaking to a group of political activists who have done so much in your lives, you know there are no guarantees..."
His voice starts to crack as he winds down; he's almost pleading now, as he preaches to the converted while acknowledging that he can't foretell the outcome.
"...because you also know by your own lives that politics isn't about observations or predictions--politics is about what we create by what we do, by what we hope for and what we dare to imagine..."
For this crowd, he can do no wrong: The fact that Wellstone is even mounting the race, or thinking about it, seems like a victory in itself. The "Run, Paul, run!" chant resumes. Wellstone grabs a youngster clutching a toy green bus and holds the child aloft--the quintessential campaign-trail image. Then the cameras, the lights, the notebooks close in around him.
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