In 1990, a few weeks after Paul Wellstone--a wiry 5-ft. 5-in. ex--college professor, liberal ideologue, professional agitator and extreme long shot--unseated an incumbent Senator in an election no one thought he could win, he sat down for breakfast with one of the few Establishment politicians he genuinely admired. Fellow Minnesotan and former Vice President Walter Mondale congratulated Wellstone on the upset but warned that the aggressiveness Wellstone had shown on the campaign trail (he starred in a series of Roger & Me--inspired ads in which he stalked his opponent) might not go over well on Capitol Hill. "Remember," said Mondale, "you have six years in the first term, not six days. Don't be so impatient, charging into everything."
Wellstone didn't hear a word. As Senator-elect in his first month, Wellstone said of new colleague Jesse Helms, "I have detested him since I was 19." Then, on his first trip to the White House, on the eve of the Gulf War, Wellstone pelted President George H.W. Bush with antiwar arguments until Bush famously asked, "Who is this chickens___?"
Over 12 years and nearly two Senate terms, Wellstone never wavered in his convictions, but he gradually adjusted his style to the courtly atmosphere of the Senate. Just how well he had adapted was evident in the hours after his campaign plane crashed two miles from a small airport last Friday 175 miles north of Minneapolis. (Also aboard were Wellstone's wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, three campaign-staff members and two pilots. There were no survivors.) "Despite the marked contrast between Paul's and my views on matters of government and politics," said Helms, his onetime nemesis, "he was my friend. And I was his."
Wellstone had been locked in a tight re-election campaign against Republican challenger Norm Coleman and had begun to pull away in recent weeks, in part because this year's chapter in the Iraq saga provided Wellstone with an opportunity to remind Minnesotans that his maverick streak remained as sharp as ever. As the only vulnerable incumbent to vote against the resolution that would give President Bush war powers, Wellstone told the Senate, "Acting now on our own might be a sign of our power, but acting sensibly and in a measured way in concert with our allies.. would be a sign of our strength." Soon after, private G.O.P. polls predicted that Wellstone would be re-elected.
Senators on both sides of the aisle broke down on Friday as they talked about their idealistic fallen comrade, but it wasn't long before they returned to the cold calculus of midterm elections. With Wellstone's death, the Senate is divided 49 to 49 to 1. If Coleman were to win, he would fill the vacancy immediately, and Republicans would suddenly have an advantage that could help them push through President Bush's struggling Homeland Security bill before the new year. Optimism, though, was hard to find among G.O.P. officials, who fear a possible repeat of what one G.O.P. Senator called the "Jean Carnahan syndrome." Two years ago, Carnahan's husband, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash while campaigning. His name remained on the ballot, and the deceased Carnahan defeated Republican incumbent John Ashcroft. Jean Carnahan was then appointed to fill his seat for two years.