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Bush Treads Carefully in Minnesota Contest

Times Staff Writer

Perhaps no incumbent Democrat was as firmly in the White House sights this autumn as Paul Wellstone. He was a liberal thorn in the side of a conservative administration -- unable to derail President Bush’s agenda when it gained centrist support, but nevertheless a certain vote in the Senate against those policies.

Against that backdrop, Bush stepped gingerly Sunday into the emotion-laden race for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota.

Abandoning some of the pointed commentary that he has directed at Democrats in other districts -- and acknowledging the sorrow of Wellstone’s death -- the president still found a way to bring cheering partisans to their feet at a St. Paul sports arena in support of Norm Coleman, the Republican candidate who now faces former Vice President Walter F. Mondale in Tuesday’s election.

Later, Bush spoke at a rally for Rep. John R. Thune in South Dakota. Like Coleman, Thune was aggressively solicited by the president’s advisors -- and eventually by Bush himself -- to run for the Senate when they sensed opportunities to unseat vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

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Employing a two-minute suspension of typical campaign rhetoric, Bush acknowledged to his St. Paul audience that “Minnesota is going through a traumatic time” and called Wellstone “a principled senator.”

“Paul Wellstone was respected by all who worked with him. He will be missed by all who knew him,” the president added.

But he quickly returned to his political agenda. “Now once you go in that voting booth, I’ve got a suggestion,” Bush said. “The best candidate for the future of Minnesota is the next United States senator, Norm Coleman.”

It was careful maneuvering through the political thicket that erupted after Wellstone’s death 11 days before the election.

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Alluding to the 74-year-old Mondale’s years in public life at the center of the liberal faction of the Democratic Party -- he served for 12 years in the Senate before becoming Jimmy Carter’s vice president -- Bush said that Coleman, 53, would bring “the kind of fresh air we need in the United States Senate.”

And twice he spoke Coleman’s campaign slogan, targeted directly at Mondale: “The future of Minnesota rests with Norm Coleman.”

Recognizing the possibility that Mondale will benefit from sentimental support in this state, where Democrats are struggling to fare as well as they did when another Minnesotan, former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, and Mondale were at the top of their game, the president added:

“There are a lot of people who may not call themselves Republicans who have been impressed with the nature of the campaign Norm Coleman has run” and the work he did as mayor of St. Paul.

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“They know him like I know him: somebody who’s willing to get rid of the stale, old, tired, name-calling politics.”

But Bush avoided some of the sharpest barbs that he has directed at Democratic candidates in other cities.

The aggressively political tenor of Wellstone’s memorial service last week took some of the edge off the sensitivity of the president’s visit here. The senior Republican in attendance last Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, was booed by Wellstone partisans who filled the college arena where the memorial was held.

“I think people were offended by some of the things that were said and done at that memorial service,” a senior White House official told reporters aboard Air Force One on Sunday.

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He said that the Minnesota race ultimately would be determined by the way the two candidates conduct themselves in the closing moments of the campaign.

“This is going to be a race in which every gesture, every word, every action is going to be taken by the voter, retained and then used to evaluate the two candidates,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Indeed, two separate polls taken late last week showed each candidate holding a lead. A Star Tribune Minnesota poll found 46% of those surveyed supporting Mondale and 41% supporting Coleman, with 9% undecided and 2% supporting Green Party and independent candidates. The St. Paul Pioneer Press/Minnesota Public Radio poll gave Coleman 47% and Mondale 41%.

The White House also is particularly interested in the South Dakota Senate race; Republicans would like nothing better than to knock off a Democratic incumbent from the home state of the Senate’s Democratic leader, Tom Daschle. The stop Sunday was Bush’s second in South Dakota in four days.

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The president was on the fourth of five consecutive days of campaign travel. Sunday, a five-state day, took him from Florida to rallies in Springfield, Ill.; St. Paul and Sioux Falls. In Illinois, he campaigned for Rep. John Shimkus, who is in a close race against Rep. David Phelps. Redrawn boundaries have put two incumbents in the same district.

Bush was to end up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, barely 12 hours after setting out from Tampa, Fla. Today, he travels from a midmorning rally in Iowa to Missouri, Arkansas and Texas, arriving at his ranch near Crawford in the evening.

A campaign stop in Minnesota had been on Bush’s tentative schedule for this weekend, even before the crash that took the lives of Wellstone, his wife, his daughter, and five others as they flew through freezing rain in a private plane. The crash put all public campaigning on hold last weekend.

But with the politicking resuming, and Bush having overseen the effort to bring Coleman -- a former Democrat -- into the race, the president’s political schedulers decided to hold to their original plan: He would tour the upper Midwest, working first for Coleman and then for Thune, the South Dakota Republican House member the White House had pressured into the race to try to unseat Sen. Tim Johnson.

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