FIRST, Democrats in Minnesota used the death of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone in an attempt to silence the Republican Senate candidate, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman. Then, they turned a widely televised memorial honoring Wellstone into a partisan political rally for electing ex-vice president Walter Mondale to Wellstone's Senate seat. And now, they're planning to make Mondale as inaccessible as possible in the closing days of the campaign, so he can ride the emotion of Wellstone's tragic death in a plane crash to election victory on November 5.
Cynical? It sure is. But it shows how desperate Democrats are to keep control of the Senate, which they currently hold by the slim margin of one vote. Even outside Minnesota, Democrats are citing Wellstone's death as a reason for stepped-up Democratic campaign activity. In New Jersey, Republicans accused Democratic Senate candidate Frank Lautenberg of saying voters should honor Wellstone by electing a Democratic Senate. In Iowa, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said Democrats are more active and energetic in the week before election as they grieve for Wellstone.
The exploitation of Wellstone's memory began within two days of his death. Several prominent Democrats, including Senate whip Harry Reid of Nevada, called Coleman the most viciously negative Senate candidate in the country. The gist here was that Coleman had attacked Wellstone not only relentlessly but also unfairly and should stop his criticism at once--even criticism of his new foe, Mondale. Other Democrats were more explicit, insisting the campaign stay positive in the final days, if only to avoid dishonoring Wellstone. Of course this would help Mondale by keeping his own record as a senator, vice president, and Democratic presidential candidate in 1984 free of a rigorous critique by Coleman and Republicans. In fact, when former House speaker Newt Gingrich criticized Mondale on TV on Sunday, the Democratic state chairman in Minnesota declared this inappropriate.
The memorial service was shameless in its partisanship. It started with emotional remembrances of Wellstone, a politician loved by liberals and respected by conservatives. But then Rick Kahn, a friend of Wellstone, turned the event into a partisan pep rally. Democratic celebrities, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Teddy Kennedy, and Al Gore, were cheered wildly. When Senate GOP Leader Trent Lott and former Republican senator Rod Grams of Minnesota were shown on the TV screen at the service, there were boos. When Mondale was shown on the screen--he didn't give a speech--he was cheered amid chants of "Fritz, Fritz, Fritz."
Kahn told the crowd of roughly 20,000: "We are begging you to help us win this Senate election for Paul Wellstone." He urged Republicans to give up their opposition and let Mondale win with bipartisan support--a clever invocation of bipartisanship to achieve a partisan end, the election of a Democrat. Kahn even called on a Republican House member, Jim Ramstad, by name, saying he should help Democrats win the Senate race.
Both Gov. Jesse Ventura, an Independent, and Republicans were furious over the transformation of the memorial service into a highly partisan event. Ventura and his wife walked out, shaking their heads, during Kahn's speech. "What a complete, total, absolute sham," Vin Weber, a former House member from Minnesota and now an adviser to Coleman, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Democratic party "clearly intends to exploit Wellstone's memory totally, completely, and shamelessly for political gain. To them, Wellstone's death, apparently, was just another campaign event."
The Coleman campaign has asked for five debates, one a day until the election. Mondale has agreed to none and, according to media reports, will limit his campaigning to a few speeches. What Republicans fear is that this tactic will allow the race to be about Wellstone and not about Mondale, who hasn't been on the ballot for statewide office in Minnesota since 1972. His views on major issues--Iraq, the war on terrorism, the Wellstone agenda of left-liberal issues--is largely unknown. In this case, that may aid his election.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.