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Coleman: Blue-State Senator Has Become A Key Bush Ally

It was several hours before President Bush formally announced John Roberts as his Supreme Court nominee last week, but Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman (R) was already praising the president.

Flanked by three staunch conservatives — Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) and Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) — Coleman lauded Bush for “set[ting] the tone with consultation and a good consultation process.”

“This should not be about a political process,” Coleman said. “This should not be about ideology.”

So it goes of late for Coleman, who has emerged as one of the most ardent advocates of administration stances on high-profile issues, ranging from the ongoing investigation into White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove’s involvement in the leak of a CIA operative’s identity to reform of the United Nations.

“Norm is certainly a supporter of this administration,” Coleman Chief of Staff Erich Mische said. “Being friends with the president is a good thing for a Senator from Minnesota. It means that the Senator can pick up the phone and talk to people in this administration, and that he’s going to be listened to and they’re going to work with him.”

Among both allies and detractors, theories abound about Coleman’s recent high-profile advocacy on behalf of Bush, even though his state supported the president’s Democratic opponents in the previous two elections.

“He is always looking for a way to engage,” said one Republican strategist friendly to Coleman. “His nature is that he is a fighter.”

Coleman “has been forever indebted” to Bush, argued a GOP consultant who does not enjoy close ties to the Minnesota Senator. “He does what they say.”

Coleman has long enjoyed a cordial relationship with not only the president but also with many members of the White House senior staff, including Rove.

The White House weighed in heavily on Coleman’s behalf in 2001.

Bush met privately with Coleman, convincing him to abandon a gubernatorial run and instead challenge Sen. Paul Wellstone (D). In addition, Vice President Cheney and Rove both personally urged Republican Tim Pawlenty to stay out of the primary against Coleman. He ultimately did and now serves as governor.

The ties between Coleman and the Bush White House extend deep into the staff level.

Jeff Larson, who’s considered Coleman’s political consigliere, is a partner in the consulting firm Feather Larson and Synhorst, a group considered close to the White House.

Feather, a longtime Rove confidant, also founded Progress for America, which has emerged as a leading Republican soft-money organization. Feather is no longer affiliated with the group.

Former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), now a lobbyist and close White House ally, is also a Coleman confidante.

Those ties seemed certain to pay off for Coleman when he announced his intention late last year to succeed Virginia Sen. George Allen at the helm of the party’s campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Initially, Coleman appeared to be the odds-on favorite, even after North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole jumped into the race.

Dole eventually won by a single vote, even though her allies acknowledge that the White House was working behind-the-scenes for Coleman.

While many observers said that the defeat shook Coleman because he had long expected to end up the winner, Mische insisted the exact opposite was true.

“This wasn’t some kind of bone-crushing defeat for him,” Mische said, arguing that Coleman was pleased he had come so close against Dole and that it was a sign of the confidence his colleagues have in him.

Barry Casselman, a Minnesota political analyst and columnist, argued that Coleman’s defeat at the hands of Dole was a blessing in disguise.

“If he had been elected campaign chair, he would have had to spend so much time out of the state that his opponents would have asked what state he was the Senator of,” Casselman said.

The matter of Coleman’s 2008 re-election race looms over any conversation about his current positioning.

Unlike colleagues such as Cornyn or DeMint, who represent solidly red states, Coleman represents a state that has voted for the Democratic nominee for president in every election since 1972, though the margin in the past two presidential elections was narrow, making Minnesota a quintessential “battleground” state.

A Democrat when first elected mayor of St. Paul in 1993, Coleman ran for Senate casting himself as a moderate — although ideology became almost a non-factor following Wellstone’s death in a plane crash just two weeks before the general election.

Democrats replaced Wellstone on the ballot with former Vice President Walter Mondale, but Coleman won a 50 percent to 47 percent victory due in large part to a backlash against a televised Wellstone memorial service that became politicized by Democratic activists.

Despite the unusual circumstances of his election, however, Mische said that voters should not be surprised by Coleman’s support of the Bush administration since coming into office.

“Minnesotans elected a conservative as their Senator,” Mische said. “They know what they got.”

Casselman cast Coleman as the latest incarnation of a “pattern” among Minnesota Republicans, reflected most recently in Sens. Rudy Boschwitz and Dave Durenberger.

“They were able to project a much more moderate image of their political views than their voting record would indicate,” Casselman said.

Both Mische and Casselman noted that Coleman opposed the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a priority for the Bush administration. The measure passed the Republican-controlled Senate 51 to 49.

Comedian and liberal activist Al Franken has begun to make noise about challenging Coleman in 2008, a race that would be certain to draw national attention, even though Franken is a campaign novice.

“I just think [Coleman] has basically been so willing to take the White House line that he’s not doing a great service to Minnesota and he’s not doing a great service for his country,” Franken said in 2004.

Mische seemed unconcerned about such comments.

“If you move beyond the partisans on either side, most people consider Norm a pretty independent-thinking guy,” he said.