ST. PAUL, Minn – Republican Senate candidate Norm Coleman will find himself up against a Minnesota legend if former Vice President Walter Mondale runs as expected in place of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.
Political experts say Coleman, the former St. Paul mayor, will have to use everything he has to overcome the affection many Minnesotans have for Mondale and the sympathy vote he is sure tnly mentioned in the same breath as Hubert H. Humphrey.
"Mondale is almost above politics in a certain way," said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, adding that most voters do not even think of Mondale as a Democrat.
If Mondale enters the race, Coleman will have only four or five days to make a case against the former vice president.
Coleman stopped campaigning Friday after Wellstone was killed in a plane crash. In a CNN interview Monday, he said a "vigorous campaign" will begin Wednesday. "Do I want to win? Yeah. Do I think I can win? I worked hard for this," he said.
Mondale said he will not discuss his intentions until after a memorial service for Wellstone on Tuesday. Democratic officials are expected to pick Mondale on Wednesday night. That leaves only a few days of actual campaigning and little time for televised debates.
"I think Norm Coleman has an extraordinary challenge," said Edward Schiappa, a University of Minnesota communications professor. "There's very few good choices available for him."
Coleman, 53, will not only be challenging the candidate chosen by Wellstone's sons, he will probably be doing so without the benefit of negative ads or many of the other traditional weapons of a campaign, which now would be unseemly.
Political analysts said any criticism of Mondale would probably come from either Coleman's party or outside groups. Republicans have already begun portraying Mondale as yesterday's choice, and Coleman as the wave of the future.
State GOP Chairman Ron Eibensteiner drew a rebuke from within his own party when he asked his Democratic counterpart to commit the new candidate to five debates. Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson said Eibensteiner should cease such requests until the new candidate is chosen.
"I understand that these are stressful moments for everyone but I do think the sensitivities of the Wellstone family should be respected," he said in a letter.
If nothing else, Mondale benefits simply by the late date, said Carlson, who won his first race in 1990 in a whirlwind nine-day campaign after the party's first choice bowed out because of the whiff of scandal.
"These campaigns are long campaigns, so the public does get a little tired of the candidates, and when you get a fresh face in the waning days of a campaign, there's going to be a great deal of focus and a great deal of sympathy," Carlson said. "I think it's a powerful force."
But former Republican Rep. Vin Weber predicted the support Coleman built during nearly two years of campaigning won't desert him now. "I think when the dust settles, we're going to find this is a pretty close race," he said.
Meanwhile, leaders of both parties were concerned with how to deal with absentee ballots. The ballots were printed before Wellstone's death, and some voters have already sent theirs in.
A plan outlined by Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, would not allow Wellstone backers to cast a new vote in the race unless they are able to make it to the polls on Election Day. Some Democratic voters have said they are prepared to sue.