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Mondale viewed as solid choice for Dems

Party officials to announce pick Wednesday

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, left, and former President Jimmy Carter
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, left, and former President Jimmy Carter

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Former Vice President Walter offers his condolences in the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone. (October 25)
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CNN's Candy Crowley takes a look at the political legacy of Sen. Paul Wellstone. (October 25)
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Born: January 5, 1928 in Celyon, Minnesota
Family: Wife Joan (married 1955), children Theodore, Eleanore and William 
Career: Minnesota attorney general, 1960-64; Appointed to the Senate to fill the seat vacated by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, 1965; re-elected 1966 and 1972; vice president, 1977-1981; Democratic presidential candidate, 1984; ambassador to Japan, 1993-1996.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As they tout the likely candidacy of Walter Mondale, Minnesota and national Democrats are turning to a well-known, well-regarded politician they believe can help them hold onto the U.S. Senate in the wake of Sen. Paul Wellstone's death in a plane crash Friday.

Most political analysts say Mondale, a former vice president and onetime senator, would be a solid choice and formidable candidate against Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul, on November 5. But there is some debate as to whether Mondale, 74, represents the future of his party in Minnesota.

"For a short-term fix, it's a really good move," said David Schultz, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Administration and Management at Hamline University in St. Paul.

"This is a choice that makes overwhelming sense," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.

Mondale has said through aides that he will have no comment until after a memorial service for Wellstone Tuesday night. But Mondale, whose last experience in public life was serving as U.S. ambassador to Japan between 1993 and 1996, has done nothing to dampen the speculation about him being named as the replacement for Wellstone, and Democrats talk as if Mondale's selection is a done deal.

Speaking to CNN, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, described Mondale as "someone who would, in effect, hit the Senate running." Minnesota Democrats are scheduled to name their nominee Wednesday, and Mondale, with his widespread name recognition and a political reputation free of scandal, has emerged as the clear favorite.

But Mondale has not been tested on the political battlefield in almost two decades, and his last fight ended in a resounding loss when Ronald Reagan trounced his bid for the White House in 1984. Mondale was last on the ballot for the U.S. Senate in 1972.

"No Minnesota voter under the age of 53 has ever been able to vote for Walter Mondale for Senate," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Said Schultz: "My guess is that for the under-30 crowd, it's Walter who?" However, Schultz added that Mondale's status as an "elder statesman" likely trumps any shortcomings he may have with younger voters -- who don't vote in as large numbers as middle-aged and older voters anyway.

Republicans signaled Sunday that they are ready to challenge Mondale should he become the nominee. Speaking on NBC, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Mondale should be the choice of Minnesota voters if they want "a big tax-increase person with a long history of raising taxes."

Like Wellstone, Mondale built his political career with solid liberal credentials, building alliances with labor, minority groups and championing women and civil rights' issues.

In the more than two decades that have passed, Republicans have become a more potent force in the state. The state's election of Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura as governor in 1998 was widely viewed as voter dissatisfaction with both major parties and also reflected a stronger-than-expected participation by young voters.

But the unique and tragic circumstances of the altered U.S. Senate race in Minnesota have Democrats focused on a more pressing goal -- holding onto Wellstone's seat.

"I don't think anyone is thinking long-term now," Mann said.

On that score, several pundits predicted that Mondale, should he become the Democratic nominee, will be the one to beat next week.

Mondale's own reputation, couple with sympathy for Wellstone, could make for a potent mix at the ballot box.

"This election will not be about issues or politics," said Schultz. "It's going to be a referendum on Paul Wellstone's memory."

To be sure, that is what Democrats would like. Several political observers said that for Coleman to win, he must engage Mondale and transform the political climate -- a tough task in what will be less than a week of campaign time before the election.

But Coleman will have significant help -- President Bush is scheduled to travel to Minnesota to campaign for the GOP on Sunday.

Talking to CNN Monday, Coleman promised a "vigorous campaign" with an "exchange of ideas," and indicated he wanted to debate Mondale.

But he refused to be drawn into a discussion of Mondale's possible candidacy, insisting it would be improper until after the memorial service for Wellstone.

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