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Suburbs may hold key to Wellstone effort
The Twin Cities suburbs are a key battleground for Sen. Paul Wellstone. Polls show Wellstone and his Republican challenger Norm Coleman are running neck and neck statewide, but that Wellstone is trailing Coleman in the suburbs. The same polls show Wellstone enjoys a lead in rural Minnesota.

In a close Senate race every vote in every area of the state is critical. Money for commercials is hardly tight. Observers estimate the Coleman and Wellstone campaigns will spend upwards of $20 million. It's time for campaigning that's at a premium, especially for Wellstone who's often in Washington attending to Senate business.

When Wellstone's in Minnesota, it's a pretty good bet you'll find him working suburban voters.

On this day Wellstone is touring the northern suburbs. The first stop: Brooklyn Park City Hall, where Minnesota's senior senator gets an earful about road congestion. One woman complains that people are spending too much time in traffic jams at the expense of their jobs and families.

Brooklyn Park Police Chief Wade Setter tells Wellstone the problem goes beyond inconvenience.

"We're talking about hundreds of personal injury accidents a year and occassionally a fatal accident and I guess my philosophy as a police manager for years has been a lot of things we try to prevent in public safety. I think a traffic highway death is probably the most needless of all because it's an engineering issue, it's a volume issue," he says.

Wellstone takes credit for helping to secure federal funding for numerous Minnesota transportation projects and says he supports more funding, but not just for roads.

"From the point of view of really trying to deal with the congestion and also dealing with some of the wasteful energy and the environmental impact and the impact on towns and neighbors, you ought to make the committment to balanced transportation policy. And that includes anything from you know rail to bus to other," he says.

Wellstone downplays the campaign element of his visit to Brooklyn Park. Still, even though he's at a transportation forum, Wellstone talks about the importance of education and affordable housing. And he notes he supported putting more police around the country , under the Clinton administration.

For Wellstone, the suburbs are a key area of focus.

"I think Paul Wellstone is spending a lot of time in the suburbs because he knows it's critical to his election victory," says Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier, who says the 2000 presidential election demonstrated the George Bush "compassionate-conservative" message that Norm Coleman is now delivering sells in suburbia.

"Bush did well in the suburban ring around the Twin Cities and Norm Coleman will do well. The question is: how well? And I think the Wellstone strategy is to cut down Coleman's margin in the suburbs, keep Wellstone competitive there, so that his strength in Minneapolis-St. Paul and perhaps in greater Minnesota makes the difference and wins the election for Wellstone," according to Schier.

Wellstone's campaign manager Jeff Blodgett acknowledges that the suburbs are critical. Blodgett says he doesn't believe Wellstone is running behind Coleman in suburbia. He says the suburbs are importance because so many undecided voters live there.

Blodgett says Wellstone is campaigning on the same issues statewide; better schools, better transportation, environmental and Social Security protection and corporate accountability. But what's unique about Wellstone's suburban effort, according to Blodgett, is the issue of abortion.

"In the next Congress there's likely to be two Supreme Court retirements next year; that's huge. The whole balance of the Supreme Court could change and the Senate has a lot to say about it and so I think for suburban women, they're going to want to know where their candidates are and on that one there's a huge difference."

Wellstone supports legalized abortion. Coleman does not.

From the transportation forum in Brooklyn Park, Wellstone makes his way to a low rent high rise under renovation in Brooklyn Center. The focus is affordable housing.

"If you get right down to it affordable housing is just a really important family issue and really important to people in Minnesota and the country so I see three or four priorities at the federal level," Wellstone tells the group.

Wellstone says government rent subsidies are important but that the government should spend more money creating housing. Wellstone, again, broadens the discussion, promoting legislation he introduced that would allow the reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada where most medicines cost a lot less than they do in the U.S. He then steers the conversation toward education.

As he makes his way from venue to venue, Wellstone often talks about his opposition to tax cuts for corporations and high-income people. Even when he speaks to business groups, right along with promoting education and better transportation, Wellstone rails at the Bush administration tax cuts.

Here's Wellstone at a meeting of the White Bear Lake Chamber of Commerce.

"To use an old Yiddish proverb, or at least I've been saying it's a Yiddish proverb and I think it is, you can't dance at two weddings at the same time. And I just don't think that we as a nation or we as Minnesotans or we in our communities can say that we want to have the very best of prescription drug coverage and we want to really invest in infrastructure and transportation and we do think we ought to be doing more by way or investment in education and at the same time have more and more tax cuts. It just doesn't work," says Wellstone.

Wellstone also talks a lot about corporate accountability, playing up from group to group the fact he's never been associated with big business.

"You have to have a twinkle in your eye and enjoy everything. I tend not to get identified as the WorldCom guy or the Enron guy; that's not my crowd," he says to a room full of laughter.

As Wellstone tries to focus on domestic issues - the economy, education, Social Security, corporate accountability - Republican Norm Coleman is increasingly talking about national defense.

For Wellstone the challenge between now and election day may be keeping the focus on those domestic concerns his campaign believes are important not only to suburban voters, but to voters across Minnesota.

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