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Bill Schneider: Wellstone took stands on principle

CNN's Bill Schneider
CNN's Bill Schneider

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, his wife Sheila and their only daughter died Friday when a small plane chartered for his re-election campaign crashed in northeastern Minnesota.

Wellstone, 58, was in a tight re-election battle with Republican Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul, a race considered key in the GOP efforts to regain control of the Senate. A former college professor and passionate liberal, he most recently opposed President Bush's call for Senate support for an attack on Iraq.

CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer talked with Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider about the Wellstone-Coleman race and Wellstone's opposition to military intervention in Iraq.

The following is an edited transcript:

SCHNEIDER: This is probably one of the two or three closest political races involving an incumbent in the entire country. Wellstone was, by my reckoning, the most liberal member of the United States Senate. He's a Democrat, got elected on a kind of quirky campaign in 1990, was re-elected. A lot of people expected he couldn't be re-elected. But he did get re-elected, and he's up again.

The race is very close. His opponent, Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul, is running a very tough campaign in which the war in Iraq is one of the central issues. This campaign is a test case for whether -- how the war is going to play as a political issue in this important state.

Wellstone voted against the resolution that would have authorized the president, President Bush, to use force in Iraq. His opponent has made that an issue in the campaign, has run ads against Sen. Wellstone, saying that he's weak on security and national defense, and in Minnesota, of course, that's a state that historically has had a big isolationist vote, and one has to ask whether the issue may help Sen. Wellstone, because there's a lot of anxiety there about the United States going to war. So this was kind of a test case for that issue.

BLITZER: Fill in the blanks a little bit more on Sen. Wellstone for us, as far as the whole current situation, his decision to go ahead and vote against the president on this Iraq resolution. It's a tough issue up in Minnesota.

SCHNEIDER: It is. And incumbent Democrats running for re-election felt really compelled, and all of them did vote for giving the president authorization to use force. But Sen. Wellstone in 2001, after the last presidential election wrote a book titled "The Conscience of a Liberal, Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda."

He took stands on principle, often alone. He was the only Democrat who voted against the Democratic version of the estate tax repeal. He was one of the few senators to vote against national missile defense, against permanent normal trade relations with China. He was often out there alone, voting his conscience. And he appears to have done that this year, just this month earlier on the Iraq resolution.

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