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Minnesota Campaign Strategies Emerge

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The campaign strategies began to emerge Monday for a Minnesota Senate race expected to pit Republican Norm Coleman against former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.

Whereas Democrats appeared inclined to frame the race largely as a tribute to Sen. Paul Wellstone, Republicans indicated they would look to draw clear issue contrasts between Mondale and Coleman as the Nov. 5 election approaches.

“There will be a vigorous, vigorous campaign to close out this election,” said Tom Mason, Coleman’s communications director. “We are going to campaign as many hours as is possible in the final days.”

In an interview on CNN on Monday, Coleman echoed calls from state Republican leaders for debates with the eventual Democratic nominee. “Minnesotans want [debates] and expect that,” Coleman said.

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Democrats, meanwhile, were laying plans to unveil their nominee at a special meeting of their central committee Wednesday night in Minneapolis.

“The tone will be different, but it will be in some respects like a convention in which we expect the nominee to say something,” said Bill Amberg, the state Democratic Party’s communications director.

All signs were pointing toward Mondale as the Democrats’ choice to replace Wellstone, who died in a plane crash Friday. Mondale, a former U.S. senator from Minnesota who then served as vice president in the Carter administration and was the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, has not publicly committed to run. But privately, Democrats say they have seen clear indications he will accept the nomination Wednesday.

“From my understanding, it’s a yes,” said one source familiar with the discussions.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee released a poll Monday that showed Mondale holding only a 45% to 43% advantage over Coleman. But even some GOP strategists worried that Mondale would look stronger later in the week, after the publicity surrounding a memorial service in Minneapolis for Wellstone today and the nomination Wednesday.

Both parties wrestled with the question of what campaign tone might be acceptable to Minnesota voters still reeling from the sudden death of Wellstone, a two-term liberal who was leading Coleman in the latest polls.

In a measure of the unsettled environment, two key groups that have been spending heavily in the race announced they would withdraw from the contest through election day.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which had been painting Coleman in television ads as a tool of corporate interests, said it would pull the commercials through election day.

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Likewise, Americans for Job Security, an independent conservative group that had unleashed a barrage of ads against Wellstone for opposing repeal of the estate tax, said it was stopping its effort. The group had been targeting Wellstone with a media campaign so comprehensive that it included radio ads in Norwegian in a state where more than 17% claim that ancestry.

“We were talking about issues specific to Paul Wellstone, so we are out of the fray,” said Michael Dubke, the group’s president.

NRSC officials, though, refused to rule out running ads during the campaign’s final days.

“I do think the party goes back on the air,” said a top Republican operative. “I may be completely wrong, but I don’t know if people are going to get offended by having somebody point out Mondale’s record, even in this situation.”

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The Republican determination to rapidly resume the campaign reflects not only the limited time left before election day, but the desire to avoid a repeat of the 2000 Senate race in Missouri.

In that contest, John Ashcroft, the GOP incumbent who now is attorney general, shut down his campaign for 10 days after his Democratic rival, Mel Carnahan, was killed in a plane crash. Missouri’s Democratic governor indicated he would appoint Carnahan’s widow, Jean, to the Senate if the dead man received the most votes on election day, and Ashcroft lost the race.

“I can tell you what happens if you stop campaigning: You lose,” said John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.

In Minnesota, the biggest Republican fear is that Mondale -- who begins the race with an advantage in stature -- will seek to largely stay above the fray over the next week and try to ride a wave of emotion over Wellstone’s death into office.

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One telling signal is that Democratic leaders are discussing ways to incorporate Wellstone’s trademark green school bus into the campaign’s final days.

“The message is, basically, ‘Do it for Paul,’ ” said one source familiar with Democratic thinking.

To counter that, Republicans appear poised to engage Mondale, assuming he accepts the nomination, much more directly than they did Democrats in the final days of the Missouri campaign.

Over the weekend, state and national Republicans previewed the contrasts they may try to draw between Coleman and Mondale.

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In comments to local reporters, Minnesota Republican Chairman Ron Eibensteiner made clear the GOP will try to frame the brief race as a choice between the future and the past. Coleman is 53, and Mondale is 74; moreover, Mondale hasn’t appeared on a ballot since 1984.

Republicans also suggested they may try to place Mondale in an ideological cross-fire.

From one side, Eibensteiner tried to raise doubts about Mondale among Wellstone’s most ideological supporters by noting the former vice president’s service on corporate boards of directors.

From the other side, conservative public relations consultant Joel Rosenberg on Monday released a memo charging that Mondale voted for tax increases at least 16 times during his Senate career.

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