MINNESOTANS WORRIED about an anthrax attack at the Mall of America can relax. Walter Mondale is on the case.

"Don't worry about me and terrorism," he declared in the Minnesota Senate debate Monday morning. "I'm opposed to it."

There were plenty of such Mondale moments over the course of the hour-long "conversation" that may help determine the result of what the former vice president twice called "the most fateful election in modern history."

Some examples: When Norm Coleman boasted that he had prosecuted white-collar criminals, Mondale responded: "You may have prosecuted some people, we all have." Mondale laid out his "issues of the future"--education, social security, and "that dreadful tax cut"--conspicuously omitting anything having to do with national security. When Coleman, wisely, raised terrorism and homeland security, Mondale sounded like an angry grandpa, frustrated that younger generations don't remember his accomplishments. "I've worked on security, defense, international security, and the rest all of my life," he shot back. When Coleman worried about the insolvency of social security and said he was open to some flexibility in government-mandated retirement benefits, Mondale wouldn't hear any of it. "That idea is wrong," he declared. And so it went.

But for Republicans seeking a "knock-out performance" by Coleman, the results were mixed. Although Mondale's answers were filled with stumbles and non sequiturs, he managed a couple witty ripostes to Coleman charges and passed--barely--the drool test.

Coleman was measured and respectful of Jimmy Carter's number two, perhaps concerned about attacking the elder statesman of Minnesota politics. (Indeed, the Coleman campaign sent out a release immediately following the debate decrying Mondale's "shrill attacks" and touting Coleman's "positive, forward-looking answers.") Going negative this late has its risks, without question. But with Mondale so obviously flappable, and with such a wealth of material--did I mentioned Mondale was Jimmy Carter's number two?--Coleman might have been a bit sharper in drawing the contrast. Surely he could have worked in one mention of "malaise," no?

But here's the bright spot for Coleman and the Republicans. If Mondale in some sense exceeded expectations by merely surviving the affair, he did little to live up to his reputation--touted everywhere in the Minnesota press these days--as a legend.

Consider this "news" article by reporter Tom Webb from the front page of Saturday's St. Paul Pioneer Press:

"As Republican Norm Coleman is discovering, it's tough to run against a political legend. In Minnesota's race for the U.S. Senate, Coleman talks about helping to bring hockey to St. Paul. Democrat Walter Mondale talks of helping bring peace between Israel and Egypt. Coleman talks about having a friend he can call in the White House. Mondale talks about serving in the White House as vice president of the United States. And Coleman talks about his commitment to women and minorities. Mondale cites his history-making work for civil rights and empowering women.

"At a campaign stop Friday in Mankato, teacher Gwen Walz, 35, was among many who regarded Mondale not as a mere politician but as an icon. 'You had such an incredible influence on me, and women of my age, by your courageous and visionary decision in the 1984 election,' which put a woman on the presidential ticket, she told Mondale, adding, 'I am so honored to be in the same room as you.'"

And on and on it goes. If the article were oral sex, it could rightly be considered obscene by just about any standard of decency. Finally, mercifully, the "news" story ends:

"While Coleman warns voters about the threat from North Korea, Mondale gives a lesson on the geopolitics of East Asia, from his days as U.S. ambassador to Japan. Coleman speaks often of the 18,000 jobs he helped to create in St. Paul during his successful tenure as mayor. Mondale hasn't claimed a role in any of the hundreds of thousands of Minnesota jobs created during his terms as U.S. senator, but he did note that he helped generate private-sector jobs as he served on the boards of several blue-chip Minnesota firms. On Friday, he resigned from all of those posts, as well as from his law firm.

"Whoever wins the election Tuesday, Mondale's place in the pantheon is secure. The next U.S. senator from Minnesota will go to work each day at the U.S. Capitol, passing by a marble bust of Walter F. Mondale."

For Minnesotans who only read Webb's article, Mondale may be a legend. But those who saw Monday's debate will be left asking, "Where's the Beef?"

Stephen F. Hayes is staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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