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Coleman Becomes Big Draw

In a freshman Republican class that boasts two former presidential wannabes and four ex-House Members, an emerging star on the GOP’s rubber-chicken circuit is a former mayor from a state that President Bush lost in 2000.

Five months ago, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) was trailing in the polls during a polarizing campaign that featured a tragic death and political rebirth along the way to becoming the most intriguing Senate contest of 2002.

Now, he is crisscrossing the country at the request of his GOP colleagues to speak to the party faithful and help raise money for 2004. Since taking office, Coleman has appeared at Republican events in Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Later this week, he will head out to Las Vegas, his second trip to Nevada in as many months.

All this political activity from a Minnesota Republican Senator who acknowledged in an interview last week there were three times in the closing months of his campaign that he thought he was headed for defeat.

Instead, Coleman dealt as carefully as possible with the tragic death of his first opponent, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), and then beat favorite son and former Vice President Walter Mondale (D) to help Republicans take back the Senate.

Coleman attributes his sudden marquee status among the party faithful to his narrow victory over Mondale — 49.5 percent to 47.3 percent — an unabashed liberal whose final political defeat sparked euphoria among conservatives from coast to coast.

“Most of it is because of beating Mondale,” said Coleman as he gesticulated his points with an unlit cigar in his new Hart office.

But in late August Coleman had different thoughts. In his own words, Democrats were “pounding” him with negative advertisements at the same time he had pulled down his own ads to save money for the final push.

At that point in the summer, Coleman’s own internal poll numbers showed him down 9 points and the campaign was bracing for the release of a poll by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which was in the field surveying on another subject. If the newspaper included a question about the Senate race, Coleman thought at the time, the poll would have had him down 15 points because his numbers in the newspaper’s polls were consistently 6 points worse than his internal numbers.

“I would have been dead,” said Coleman, noting that late campaign donations would have dried up if he looked so weak on the eve of Labor Day, when many PACs make their final decisions about key races.

Much to Coleman’s surprise, however, the Star Tribune poll focused on other political matters — such as the close governor’s race — and didn’t ask a question about the Senate battle.

“It was never published and we go back on the air for a week and then we go back up by 4 points. Boom! Right back up,” recalled Coleman.

Two months later, on a Friday afternoon in the closing days of the campaign, Coleman received the horrible news: Wellstone’s airplane had crashed. There were no survivors. Campaign activity was immediately suspended.

“I was convinced we were going to win on Oct. 25,” Coleman said of his thoughts in those hours before learning of Wellstone’s death. “I wasn’t as convinced when Walter Mondale was selected” to replace Wellstone on the ballot.

When Mondale announced his intention to run, the word in Washington was that the White House was going to pull its resources out of Minnesota and direct the National Republican Senatorial Committee to do the same.

Trying to defeat a favorite son coupled with a Democratic base re-energized by Wellstone’s death seemed an unbeatable battle. Only two years earlier, deceased Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) defeated incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft (R) under eerily similar circumstances.

Privately, Bush’s political advisers who persuaded Coleman to opt out of the governor’s race to run for Senate told him they were sticking by him.

“I got calls from [Karl] Rove and [Jack] Oliver saying nobody is changing any plans. ‘We are with you,’” Coleman said of the top White House official and the top official at the Republican National Committee.

Coleman also attributes the infamous Wellstone memorial service, which turned into a political rally, as a key turning point.

“The day after the rally I was convinced” of a win, Coleman said.

As he went to bed on Election Night, several Democratic-leaning counties had not yet reported their vote tallies. It wasn’t until early the next morning that Coleman truly believed he was the winner.

“I shut my eyes and at 5:01 [a.m.] I was declared the winner,” he said.

Now, more than five months later, Coleman is getting into the Senatorial groove, although he acknowledges being a little green.

“The biggest challenge is all of this stuff is coming at you and I have to figure out a way to focus and I haven’t done that yet,” he said. “I have to figure out what I am going to spend my time on.”

While Coleman is quick to note that Minnesota issues remain his top priority, he plans to devote a substantial amount of time to his chairmanship of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a key panel that could help him raise his national profile.

“It is a very important subcommittee and I will use it to do good,” said Coleman, who added he would not shy away from investigating the administration if a situation arises.

Still, Coleman is loyal to Bush, perhaps because the president stood by his side in the last days of the campaign. And the Minnesota Republican is not shy about comparing his legislative accomplishments to those of his predecessor.

“To be very blunt and God watch over Paul’s soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone,” Coleman said. “Just about on every issue.”

When pressed about the remaining 1 percent, Coleman sidestepped the issue and instead talked about his desire to support Bush.

“In other words, Wellstone was never with the president,” Coleman said of the first two years of the Bush administration. “I could be with the president most of the time. If I disagree on affirmative action. If I disagree on ANWR. If I disagree on something else down the road, so what. The differences are so profound.”

Still, in the same interview that Coleman criticizes Wellstone, the Minnesota Republican expresses sympathy for the deceased Senator’s family and friends.

As for how he handled the news of Wellstone’s death, Coleman said he went home and hugged his two children.

“On the one hand you mourn for somebody else and on the other hand you say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’” he said.

Even though Coleman joined Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) in ushering through a multimillion-dollar immigration center named in honor of Wellstone and his wife, the Minnesota Republican said he realizes some Wellstone backers are bitter over losing the Senator and then the election.

“I still think there is a lot of anger, not from the kids, but the Wellstone forces out there,” he said. “I see that, and I think there is a lot of that out there.

“They lost their champion and they thought something was taken away. All you can do is say, ‘Hey, I mourn the loss, but I am here and I am going to do what I think is the right thing to do and thank God I have a chance to be here.’”

Democrats knock Coleman, who switched parties several years ago, as a political opportunist. They note that he campaigned as a moderate, but is now very much in Bush’s corner.

Coleman bucked the administration on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and he will not rule out breaking ranks again. But in the short term, Coleman said it is important for the GOP Conference to stay united and accused the Democratic leadership of putting politics over policy.

“Right now there is a lot of testing about whether we are a majority or not,” he said. “I think there will be room down the road to be more flexible, a little more independent. What I am seeing right now is testing who is in charge.”

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