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Debate challenge breaks period of Wellstone mourning
By Mark Zdechlik
Minnesota Public Radio
October 28, 2002


Minnesota Democrats are furious at state Republican leaders, who issued a challenge for debates between Sen. Paul Wellstone's replacement on next week's ballot and Republican Senate candidate Norm Coleman. Democrats are accusing Republicans of disrespect for issuing the challenge on the day Wellstone was buried in a private ceremony. Wellstone, his wife, daughter and five others died Friday in a plane crash on the Iron Range.

Republican Party chair Ron Eibensteiner said Democrats should agree to a debate each day between Mondale and Republican candidate Norm Coleman starting Thursday and ending next Monday, the day before the election.
(MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)

Republican Party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner formally issued his debate challenge in a letter to DFL Party Chairman Mike Erlandson. In the letter, Eibensteiner expresses the heartfelt sympathy of all Minnesota Republicans over the deaths. He then proposes a series of five Senate debates to be held nightly Thursday through Monday, the day before the election.

Wellstone's replacement won't be named until the DFL central committee meets on Wednesday, but all signs point to former vice president and senator Walter Mondale. Mondale's affiliations include being a member of the Minnesota Public Radio board of trustees.

The GOP's Eibensteiner is among those who presume Mondale will take Wellstone's place. His letter to the DFL quotes Mondale from the former vice president's 1984 presidential campaign talking about the importance of debates.

And Eibensteiner says that the best way to give voters information about Coleman and Mondale would be to have the two debate several times between now and election day.

"From our vantage point we would obviously like to do that because I think that is a very effective way for both candidates to get their message out. I don't know if Walter Mondale or the Democrats would be up to a challenge for that," he said.

DFL Party Chairman Mike Erlandson reacted angrily, calling the Republican Party's debate challenge "disrespectful and inappropriate" because it came just three days after the tragic plane crash. Erlandson noted Norm Coleman has rightfully refrained from campaign activity.

DFL Party Chairman Mike Erlandson reacted angrily, calling the Republican Party's debate challenge "disrespectful and inappropriate" because it came just three days after the tragic plane crash.
(MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)

He says the Eibensteiner letter suggests Republicans will continue what Erlandson has been an extraordinarily negative campaign. "We understand that the election is close and that people want to get back to campaigning and politicking and all sides want to do that. Sen. Wellstone would want everybody to begin appropriate campaigning but there is enough time to do that after the families have had an opportunity to pay their final respects to these individuals."

And it's not just Democrats who are criticizing the GOP leader's decision to issue the debate challenge on the day of Wellstone's burial.

Former Republican governor and longtime Coleman supporter Arne Carlson sent a letter to Eibensteiner urging the chairman to respect the sensitivities of the Wellstone family and cease his debate challenge talk until after Democrats nominate a replacement candidate.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report, says says the situation Coleman finds himself in is eerily similar to that former Republican senator John Ashcroft found himself in two years ago.

Ashcroft, the incumbent, was in a dead heat with Missouri's democratic governor, Mel Carnahan, who also died in a plane crash in October. Ashcroft shut down his campaign, but was even criticized for attending Carnahan's funeral. Duffy says Coleman really couldn't be in a more difficult position.

"You're pretty helpless. There's really very little that you can do. Suspend your campaign for an appropriate amount of time and then if you resume it again try and stay very positive. But they are living in the worst of all worlds at this point. He can't criticize Democrats in any way yet he's in the position of being able to be criticized and not being able to answer them," Duffy said.

If there's a bright spot for Coleman, Cook says, it's that he has an opportunity to bolster his political reputation by taking the high road, positioning himself for another potential run another day.

Coleman plans to attend the service for the Wellstones and the campaign workers.

Coleman's campaign says it plans to begin working voters again on Wednesday but will say little beyond the fact it they expect a vigorous albeit short campaign. Eibensteiner says Coleman will focus on his vision for the future with advertising that will take a decidedly different tone than the attacks ads that were running constantly prior to the plane crash.

President Bush, who asked Coleman to run against Wellstone, is reportedly coming back to Minnesota to campaign for Coleman this weekend.

More from MPR
  • Audio: Politics after Wellstone What are the political implications of the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone? MPR's Midmorning talked with Steven Smith, Director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St.Louis. (10/28/02)
  • Audio: Choosing a successor Former Vice President Walter Mondale says he won't comment publicly on whether he would be interested in running in place of Sen. Paul Wellstone, but several reports say he is being urged to run. Is he the right choice? MPR's Midday considers the question. (10/28/02)
  • Audio: Former Mondale aide David Lillehaug Morning Edition interview on 10/28/02.