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Seasoned Veterans Return to Races

Walter Mondale offers Minnesota voters an instantly recognizable name and a familiar record. Frank Lautenberg, another former senator who ended retirement to run this month, gives New Jersey's electorate the same.

As returning veterans, Mondale and Lautenberg are not alone. Former office holders are running across the country in races from the statehouse to the Senate.

"It's like the old firehouse horse. People hear that bell, they get ready to go,'' said Quinnipiac University political scientist Mickey Carroll.

Some were turned out by voters, others retired. Many returned voluntarily, but desperate party leaders turned to the well-known veterans in New Jersey and Minnesota.

Lautenberg, 78, stood in for Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli when his campaign imploded after months of talk about personal ethics violations.

The former vice president, 74-year-old Mondale, will run in his home state in place of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died last week in a plane crash.

Such comeback candidates offer voters a comfortable shorthand in a crowded campaign season, political analysts said. Familiar names are just that, allowing campaigns to capitalize on high recognition with voters who might not realize a candidate has been out of circulation.

"It's using the old household names,'' said Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton New Jersey Project at Rutgers University.

Another veteran hitting the campaign trail is Republican Lamar Alexander, known for his failed presidential runs and distinctive plaid shirt. Alexander, twice elected governor of Tennessee before becoming the nation's education secretary, is hoping to replace retiring Sen. Fred Thompson.

In Oklahoma, former Gov. David Walters is challenging GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe. Walters pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating campaign finance laws after being indicted while in office.

Maryland voters are being asked to send Republican Helen Delich Bentley, 78, back to Congress, where she spent five terms. Bentley lost a 1994 primary race for governor.

Old candidates are attractive in new campaigns for two main reasons, said Reed, who studies issues related to election turnout. News media outlets rarely cover campaigns in depth and the paid advertisements by the candidates fall short of giving voters enough information.

"It really is the difficulty of capturing voters' attention under the constraints of money and campaign style and media practice,'' she said.

Voters should question a politician's return, but no more so than they would the reason any one runs for office, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

Lautenberg and Mondale have obvious reasons to return, he said.

"In both cases, you're into emergency replacements. You're going to chose someone in an emergency who already has name recognition so in a very truncated campaign you don't have to develop that,'' Gans said.

For his part, Lautenberg said retirement could wait. Making sure Democrats control the Senate was reason enough to cut short time with his grandchildren, he now tells potential voters.

"I am there, called in from the bullpen to pitch in the last innings of the game to make sure we don't loose,'' Lautenberg said.