THE REELECTION OF NORM COLEMAN as mayor of St. Paul passed almost unnoticed in the national coverage of November's races. First elected as a Democrat in 1993, Coleman switched parties a year ago. Yet he never caught the eye of Beltway pundits. The national media paid attention to just two East Coast governors' races and a lone U.S. House contest -- while out in Minnesota, people were beginning to say that Norm Coleman was the most charismatic politician since Hubert Humphrey and might be the state's next governor.

Coleman's success as a Republican -- he took 59 percent of the vote -- is a departure for St. Paul, long a stereotypical liberal Midwestern city. Its voters had elected few Republicans -- none as mayor -- for thirty years. The first time Coleman, then an assistant state attorney general, ran for the Democratic nomination for mayor, in 1989, he lost to a liberal city councilman whose base was the powerful neighborhood organizations. But St. Paul's fortunes were sagging -- its population declining, its downtown crumbling, its businesses fleeing the city's high taxes and labor strife. Traditional liberal solutions had clearly failed. Increasingly conservative, Coleman upset the liberal-endorsed candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1993. And this time, he won.

In his first term, Coleman took some effective steps to halt St. Paul's decline. Yet neither local nor state Democrats (their proper name in Minnesota is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, or DFL) were impressed. On many issues, Coleman was diverging from the party line.

Soon after taking office, he established himself as a fiscal conservative, writing off a $ 20 million debt of the city's housing agency, merging the city health departments, cutting property taxes, and subcontracting election- bureau work to the private sector. He put more policemen on the streets and became an advocate of light rail. In an early confrontation with AFSCME, the public-employees' union, he rejected city workers' pension demands. And when Coleman endorsed Republican governor Arne Carlson's controversial school- voucher proposal, the local teachers' unions were enraged. The more conservative unions supported him -- the construction trades, pleased with his development program, and police and firefighters, who liked his tough stand on crime. His pro-life position was a serious political liability in the staunchly pro-choice DFL. (A Brooklyn-born Jew, Coleman had married into one of St. Paul's most conservative Irish Catholic families.) The DFL was becoming an uncomfortable home.

While still a Democrat, Coleman sought out Vin Weber, the state's most powerful behind-the-scenes Republican. Weber had been elected to Congress in 1980 and had soon become one of the leaders of the conservative Young Turks, along with Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Trent Lott, and Bob Walker. But Weber retired in 1992 and became a Washington consultant. He helped found Empower America and began reestablishing ties back in Minnesota.

In 1994, he teamed up with an old antagonist, Gov. Carlson, a moderate. He helped Carlson win the biggest landslide in state history since 1881, uniting Republicans (and some conservative Democrats) against an ultraliberal opponent. Weber built a house in the state, sought out old allies and staffers, and settled into a new life as a political kingmaker.

By this time, the shrewd and ambitious mayor of St. Paul knew he had no future in his own party. Pro-life Democrats held no statewide office. Ultraliberals controlled the party apparatus and the tortuous (and undemocratic) precinct-caucus system. In fact, the extremes in both parties had held the state's politics hostage for some time. Now, with Weber grafting his conservative rural "outstate" base to Carlson's moderate suburban base, it was plain that a politician like Coleman might find a place in the GOP.

Last year, Weber staged a colorful party-switching announcement in Coleman's living room. In attendance were Jack Kemp, Carlson, Rep. Jim Ramstad, pollster Frank Luntz, and the local and national press. At a St. Paul hotel reception afterward, the GOP masses ecstatically received the convert. Blocks away, at DFL headquarters, politicos began a campaign to portray Coleman as a "turncoat," though he would argue he was pushed out by the party's left-liberal organizational base.

Now the question is whether Coleman, 48, will run for governor. If so, he will be forced to start electioneering just months into his second term; the primary is in September 1998. Coleman's opponent in 1997, a liberal state senator, pressed this point in her campaign to unseat him. But her attack only emboldened the mayor to say in his public appearances that he thought most St. Paulites would be delighted to have him as governor -- and Election Day interviews with voters leaving the polls conducted by the Twin Cities' largest radio station seemed to confirm this.

As he ponders his next move, Norm Coleman leads in most GOP voter polls for the gubernatorial race. Rural conservatives like his pro-life position and economic views, and suburban moderates appreciate the revival of St. Paul as well as his personal style.

His critics include some old-time Republicans who mistrust a Johnny-come- lately, as well as liberals who say he is an opportunist and too pro-business. Many Democrats suggest that his development projects are a house of cards. Coleman waves off these voices of gloom. "A mayor these days has to be an agent of change," he says, "and my first job was to generate confidence and hope." Although a recent fiasco over a new baseball stadium has clouded the outlook for the Minnesota Twins, he remains optimistic that his high-profile effort to bring NHL hockey back to the state -- in a St. Paul rink -- will bear fruit. "People expect elected officials to solve problems," Coleman declares, "and that's why I'm working to bring businesses back, jobs back, and pro sports back to St. Paul."

Eric Mische, Coleman's adviser and political alter ego, insists that Coleman is a natural coalition-builder whose economic message appeals to Minnesota's new but sizable minority groups, such as Hispanics and Southeast Asians. Coleman's St. Paul, Mische says, "is an incubator for change, a laboratory for Republican ideas." Kemp calls him "an empowerment conservative, " adding, "It's not natural for people in our inner cities to live in poverty and squalor. Norm Coleman is trying to come up with answers to problems. He's tenacious. I think he's destined for higher office."

Coleman himself is more tentative, for now at least. "I'd have to be away from my family for another year," he says. "Besides, I don't think I want to be in government forever. If I run for governor, or I finish out this term as mayor -- that's it, then I want to go into the private sector." Whatever he does, Coleman has already shown the way to a new urban Republicanism in St. Paul.

The electorate here is in a volatile mood. Although threatened with the loss of their beloved baseball team, Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly backed severe limits on public expenditures for a new stadium. In spite of an enormous Democratic registration advantage, St. Paul voters handily reelected a Republican mayor. Even in Minneapolis, a controversial Republican candidate for mayor made a contest of it.

In the northern heartland, Minnesota's ultraliberal image seems to be fading. Liberal Republican Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey probably couldn't be nominated and elected to any statewide office here. Norm Coleman has won twice in St. Paul, first as a maverick Democrat and now as a hybrid Republican. It's a phenomenon that merits watching.

Barry Casselman writes about congressional and presidential campaigns for the Preludium News Service. St. Paul, Minn.

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