MINNEAPOLIS – Some 20,000 lawmakers, family, friends, and well-wishers gathered to say goodbye to Paul Wellstone Tuesday evening, at a memorial service for the late senator featuring nearly as much laughter as tears — that culminated in a furious series of partisan speeches.
"He represented the regular people," said Irv Rosenblum of St. Paul as she waited for the ceremony to begin. "He didn't represent the high and the mighty."
The first eulogies were tender remembrances for the seven people killed along with Wellstone in a northern Minnesota plane crash Friday. So, too, were remarks for Wellstone, who had been locked in a difficult re-election battle with Republican Norm Coleman.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and one of Wellstone's closest friends in the Senate, called him "the soul of the Senate."
"Now we see an outpouring of grief, an admiration in this arena and all across the land, every bit as authentic as he was," Harkin said. "It's a tribute to him. But it's also a tribute to the yearning for a politics that truly can be the noble profession of putting principle above the latest poll results."
By the end of his talk, though, Harkin had shed his jacket and was imploring the crowd — some 15,000 people at a University of Minnesota sports arena — to work on Wellstone's behalf. That likely means backing Walter Mondale, who is expected to take Wellstone's ballot spot after a Democratic party meeting Wednesday.
"For Paul Wellstone, will you stand up and keep fighting for social justice? Say YES!" Harkin shouted. The crowd roared.
Rick Kahn, Wellstone's friend and former student, whipped up the crowd before Harkin took the stage by adopting the late senator's fiery speaking style.
He chopped the air with his hands, as Wellstone often did, and exhorted the crowd to keep Wellstone's dream alive.
"A week from today, Paul Wellstone's name will not be on the ballot," Kahn said. "But there will be a choice just the same ... either keep his legacy alive, or bring it forever to an end!"
As the crowd erupted in a loud "No!" Kahn continued:
"If Paul Wellstone's legacy in the Senate comes to an end just days after this unspeakable tragedy, our spirits will be crushed, and we will drown in a river of tears. We are begging you, do not let this happen."
An overflow crowd of thousands gathered outside the arena to watch on giant video screens, and multitudes more watched and listened on statewide TV and radio to the ceremony for Wellstone; his wife Sheila, 58; his daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, 33; and campaign staffers Mary McEvoy, 49, Tom Lapic, 49, and Will McLaughlin, 23.
All were killed in a plane crash Friday in northern Minnesota. The plane's two pilots, Richard Conry, 55, and Michael Guess, 30, also died.
Republicans were quick to criticize the partisan tone of the memorial's final hour.
"Tomorrow the war starts, and the Democrats exacerbated the intensity of that war with what happened here tonight," said Sarah Janecek, a Republican consultant.
Coleman, who suspended his campaign after Wellstone's death, planned a statewide flyaround starting early Wednesday morning.
The service was packed with national political figures. Former President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's arrival, in the midst of ebullient rhythm and blues, drew a huge cheer from the crowd. They were followed by former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and many others.
Before the eulogies, the crowd erupted when Mondale, the former vice president and senator, walked in with his wife, Joan. Mondale, 74, smiled broadly, exchanging handshakes and hugs with Clinton and others.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, former governor of neighboring Wisconsin, represented the Bush administration after initial reports had Vice President Dick Cheney attending. The Wellstone family asked Cheney to stay away, in part out of concern that his presence might overshadow the event.
The crowd watched a photo and video collage of Wellstone and the other victims, set to Bob Dylan's "Forever Young."
Like Kahn, David Wellstone, the senator's oldest son, talked of next week's election and "looking forward to digging in" in his father's name. But most of his remarks were devoted to happy memories of his father, mother and sister, and learning values rooted in social justice.
Elizabeth Jacobson, of St. Paul, cried as she waited for the service.
"I think he might have been the greatest politician who ever came from here," she said. "I feel a lot of comfort being here."
Outside the ceremony, the famed green bus that carried the Minnesota Democrat to victory on his populist campaigns served as a shrine, thick with flowers left by mourners.
Family and close friends attended a private funeral for Paul and Sheila Wellstone at a Minneapolis synagogue on Monday. Their bodies were buried in Lakewood Cemetery, where Hubert Humphrey also is buried.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.