Former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman Monday formally launched his bid to unseat two term Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. Before a crowd of several hundred supporters gathered at Harriet Island, Coleman pledged to work across party lines on behalf of Minnesotans.
From his World Trade Center law office 32 stories above downtown St. Paul, Norm Coleman enjoys a spectacular floor-to-ceiling view. And much of what he sees are projects he had a role in building during his eight year's as the city's mayor - the Xcel Center, home of the Minnesota Wild; The River Centre, the Lawson Software building and many less prominent projects which have transformed the city.
"I'm not a cynic or a critic. In eight years here it was about building on the positive, pulling people together more hope, more optimism. When I ran for mayor my statement was St. Paul best days are yet to come. They were. I see the same for Minnesota," Coleman said.
Coleman lost the 1998 gubernatorial election to Jesse Ventura. Prior to announcing his Senate intentions, he had dismissed interest in the job. But he says his friend George W. Bush convinced him otherwise, that as senator, Coleman could help Minnesotans and play an important role in national politics.
In May, the president displayed his interest in Coleman's candidacy, unveiling the White House's much awaited energy policy in downtown St. Paul.
"I take pride on having the ear of the president," Coleman says. "He doesn't always agree with me and I'm not always going to agree with him. But it's the kind of thing where if you have a relationship that relationship allows you to get things done for your constituents, that's a good thing."
Critics, including some in the Republican Party, took offense to the administration's early support for Coleman. Some thought it was wrong for Vice President Cheney to call Minnesota House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty last summer and ask him not to challenge Coleman for the party endorsement.
Democrats say if elected, Coleman will be little more than an extension of the White House and a Republican administration, which they say is not working in the interest of regular Minnesotans.
"Their domestic policies are heavily tilted towards major corporations," says Jeff Blodgett, campaign manager for incumbent Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone. "You look at the energy bill and the favors that go to the oil industry. You look at their tax cuts and how they're very skewed toward major corporations and all of that points to what side the White House and our opponent is really on: the side of special interests and major corporations."
But Coleman says he won't be a pawn of the White House. He says as mayor, he took criticism for close relationships with business leaders, but he says those associations netted St. Paul thousands of new jobs. He says he can do the same thing on a larger scale in Washington.
"Minnesota, I think, ranks 45th in terms of getting dollars back from Washington. We should deliver for our people and if people want that, I have a chance to win. If they want a voice against the system, if they want a voice that fights where we're going, that's fighting the president, then they'll vote for the incumbent. It's going to be a very clear choice in this race," Coleman says.
Now a self-described "common sense conservative," not long ago Coleman was a Democrat.
"Paul Wellstone is a Democrat, and I am a Democrat, but I stand before you today much like the 20 to 30 percent of this convention's delegates who call themselves pro-life, or pro-business, pro-jobs, pro-economic growth, to proudly proclaim my support for President Bill Clinton and Sen. Paul Wellstone," Coleman said the 1996 DFL state convention.
Delegates booed Coleman. Six months later the mayor announced he had become a Republican.
"When I switched parties, I didn't switch my position on a single issue. The public agreed with what I was doing and they re-elected me as a Republican," Coleman said.
"If the Ventura voters, who fit more the libertarian Jesse point of view, show up again, that's a big boost for Coleman."
- Chris Gilbert, political analyst
But Gustavus Adolphus political science professor Chris Gilbert says the party change hurt Coleman in the gubernatorial election four years ago, thanks in large part to candidate Jesse Ventura, who successfully labeled Coleman "a rudderless politician willing to say anything to get a vote."
"Now 1998 was very soon after he switched parties and we've been through a couple of electoral cycles and I suspect that is far less important than it used to be, but if it suggests to voters that Norm Coleman is a little bit too slick than that's an image problem that has to be overcome," according to Gilbert.
Coleman says his gubernatorial campaign spent $1 million wooing Republican convention delegates to win the party's endorsement, but that he failed to connect with moderate voters who decide elections.
He's taking a different tack this time. Coleman will draw clear ideological distinctions between himself and Wellstone. But just as importantly, he'll define himself as a politician who can get things done.
"In this race, I have the opportunity since I'm not facing an internal party battle to get out there and to show people here's who I am, here's what I've done. And I've got to certainly do some things that are different. My eight-year-old daughter told me in 1998, and I didn't listen to her, 'Dad, if you show people your heart, you'll win.' I think I have to show people my heart and my ability and my record," Coleman says.
Coleman says he expects to raise $8 million for the race, but predicts Wellstone will raise more. Political observers predict the two will spend a total of more than $20 million, breaking the 2000 Senate race's $18 million spending record. And millions more in unregulated soft money and independent expenditures will likely pour in.
"If that much money is spent, that's a sign that it is a real battlefield," says Larry Noble, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Noble says Coleman's White House backing will be a major influence on the race. "It's incredibly important, especially with this president. This president has fantastic ratings right now in terms of public opinion polls," Noble says.
Political scientist Chris Gilbert says a wild card in the Coleman-Wellstone race could very well be Gov. Jesse Ventura. If Ventura seeks re-election and no strong Independence Party Senate candidate emerges, Gilbert says Ventura could help him win a U.S. Senate seat by default.
"Some of the research that a colleague and I have conducted shows that those Ventura voters went about 70 percent Republican for other offices in 1998. We didn't have a Senate race, but clearly if the Ventura voters, who fit more the libertarian Jesse point of view, show up again, that's a big boost for Coleman," Gilbert says.
Coleman says he expects President Bush to visit the state to help him campaign.More from MPR