MINNEAPOLIS – Walter Mondale returned to politics Wednesday night as Minnesota Democrats loudly approved the former vice president as a fill-in for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone less than a week before the election.
"Tonight, our campaign begins," said Mondale, who last ran for office in 1984. "I start it with a pledge to you. I will be your voice, and I will be Paul Wellstone's voice for decency and better lives."
Earlier Wednesday, Mondale ended any suspense about his intentions with a letter to Democratic leaders, declaring himself ready to run if chosen.
The Republican nominee, Norm Coleman, didn't wait for the official coronation of his new opponent: He targeted Mondale as he made campaign stops in three Minnesota cities Wednesday and launched new TV commercials.
"The challenge for the vice president is, what is his vision for the 21st century, how does he expect to get it done," Coleman said at a stop in International Falls. "Nobody hands you anything."
Democrats were jubilant at the news that Mondale had agreed to run. Mondale, 74, is seen as their best shot at keeping Wellstone's seat as they try to hold on or add to their single-seat majority in the Senate.
At a special meeting Wednesday night, more than 800 party representatives approved Mondale's candidacy with a boisterous "YEA!" There were no dissenters; Mondale was mobbed as he made his way to the podium to speak.
The approval came amid growing concern the results of Tuesday's closely watched election will be delayed at least a day. State and county officials warned that confusion over what to do with absentee ballots would slow things.
Wellstone was killed along with his wife, daughter, three campaign staffers and two pilots in a plane crash Friday in northern Minnesota. He had been in a nip-and-tuck battle against Coleman, a former St. Paul mayor.
Mondale has inherited the slight lead Wellstone had recently opened over Coleman, according to a poll of 639 likely voters released Wednesday by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
Mondale had 47 percent support to Coleman's 39 percent, according the poll, which has a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points.
In a brief speech to the Democratic meeting, Mondale said he and his wife were stirred by a plea from Wellstone's oldest son, David, that he enter the race.
"We are doing it because Paul and Sheila's fight for the working people and the forgotten people in Minnesota must go on," Mondale said.
His campaign scheduled a full day of appearances and interviews on Thursday, and Mondale said he would travel the state in the days before the election.
Mondale's name and stature made him the only candidate seriously considered for the job of pulling together a campaign and winning an election in less than a week. Wellstone's two sons had asked Mondale to run.
"They knew that Paul would want someone of integrity and honesty and character to finish this race off," said Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone's campaign manager. "Fritz Mondale was the only one on that list."
Like Wellstone a staunch liberal, Mondale served in the White House with President Carter and in 1984 ran for president against Ronald Reagan. He served as ambassador to Japan under President Clinton, and since then has practiced law in Minnesota.
Mondale made history in 1984 by choosing a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate on the presidential ticket. But he carried only his home state and the District of Columbia in a landslide loss to Reagan; even in Minnesota, he received just 4,000 votes more than Reagan.
Meanwhile, county officials continued to take different approaches on what to do about absentee ballots.
Some mailed out new ballots, despite statements by the secretary of state and attorney general that they should only be given out in person. A few officials told residents to scratch out Wellstone's name and write in their choice.
"Our hope is that whatever the outcome is here it is not decided by the few thousands of absentee ballots that may be in question — that we do not have a Florida here," said John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorney Association.
County officials agree the results in the Senate race probably won't be known before the morning after Election Day. Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis and one-fourth of the state's population, said none of its results would be available until midnight or later.
The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday in a Democratic Party lawsuit intended to make sure new ballots are mailed out to give residents a chance to vote for Wellstone's replacement.
Meanwhile, organizers of Tuesday night's memorial for Wellstone said they regretted its overly partisan tone. "It probably would have been best not to get into politics and elections in the way it was done," Blodgett said.
State GOP Chairman Ron Eibensteiner called the 3-hour service "raw hardball political campaigning" and said the party has asked broadcasters that covered the service to give Republicans air time "for the sake of basic fairness."
Gov. Jesse Ventura left the memorial angry and said he planned to appoint an independent, instead of a Democrat, to finish Wellstone's term. He later backed off that, saying only that he was looking at his options.