MINNEAPOLIS – After telling a Capitol newspaper that he's a "a 99 percent improvement" over the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Sen. Norm Coleman said he would never want to diminish the legacy of his Democratic predecessor.
"To be very blunt and God watch over Paul's soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone," Coleman, R-Minn., said in a front-page story published in Roll Call. "Just about on every issue."
Coleman said he was stressing his ties to President Bush and told the newspaper that Wellstone "was never with the president."
The Roll Call story caused an uproar among Wellstone's former staffers. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., called for Coleman to apologize, saying his remarks were inappropriate, disrespectful and "an unnecessary attack on a leader our state continues to mourn."
"Paul Wellstone represented Minnesota families with integrity, respect and passion for 12 years," McCollum said. "Senator Coleman's remarks attacking our late senator were tasteless and do absolutely nothing to benefit the Minnesota families he now serves."
In a statement released by his office Monday night, Coleman said:
"Mark Twain said the problem with talking to the media is they're likely to print what you say. It was my responsibility to be more clear in my remarks to Roll Call. It was my understanding we were comparing my relationship to this White House to the relationship Sen. Wellstone had with this White House. I would never want to diminish the legacy or memory of Sen. Paul Wellstone, and I will accept full responsibility for not having been more accurate in my comments."
Wellstone was killed, along with his wife and daughter, three campaign aides and the two pilots in a plane crash Oct. 25 in northern Minnesota.
Jay Howser, a former senior aide, said for Coleman to attack Wellstone less than six months after the senator's death "is beyond the believable."
Wellstone's former spokesman, Jim Farrell, called it a "shameful, self-serving assertion" from Coleman.
The Roll Call story, headlined "Coleman becomes big draw," noted that Coleman was "an emerging star on the GOP's rubber-chicken circuit." On Friday night, he spoke to Republicans in South Carolina, and since taking office Jan. 7, he has given speeches to Republican gatherings in Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nevada and Missouri.
In the story, Coleman reflected on his election to the Senate and said "there is a lot of anger" still coming from Wellstone forces.
"They lost their champion and they thought something was taken away," he told the newspaper. "All you can do is say, 'Hey, I mourn the loss, but I am here and I am going to do what I think is the right thing to do, and thank God I have a chance to be here.' "