he instant conventional wisdom, formed before he has even formally entered the race for the late Paul Wellstone's Senate seat, is that former vice president Walter Mondale has it in the bag. Stories over the weekend helpfully suggested that Republican candidate Norm Coleman essentially pack it in that he go through the motions of campaigning and live to run another year.
A closely related piece of conventional wisdom has it that Wellstone would probably have won the race had he not been tragically killed, along with his wife, his daughter, and five others, in a plane crash on Friday. One recent poll had him leading Coleman by six points. The further assumption seems to be that the Democrats will benefit from a wave of sympathy, much as Jean Carnahan did in 2000, when Missouri governor Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash in the middle of a Senate race.
We'll never know what might have been if Wellstone had lived, of course. But it's by no means a sure thing that Wellstone would have won. The last Republican polls taken before Wellstone's death had Coleman slightly ahead. And even the poll that placed Wellstone in the lead didn't show the senator above 50. In fact, no poll showed him cracking 50.
Neither does the Carnahan parallel show that Coleman has no shot. Jean Carnahan's candidacy had four things going for it in 2000. First, there was sympathy for a newly widowed woman. Second, there was the nasty tone of the race prior to Gov. Carnahan's death. The race drove both candidates' negatives up. When one of the candidates died, the other one was left with his high negatives in place and forced to run against a new candidate his opponent's widow with no such handicap. Third, Carnahan's death helped motivate the Democratic base to turn out. Fourth, the end of the campaign saw a lot of free media devoted to Democratic themes. All the wonderful things that Mel Carnahan had done received glowing coverage. (No doubt a genial conservative who died suddenly would get the same treatment.)
The fourth factor will be present in this race, too. The first won't, since the replacement candidate is not going to be one of Sen. Wellstone's surviving relatives. The second will be a smaller factor than it was in Missouri, because the Wellstone-Coleman race, while tough, was more issue-oriented and less personal. The third is hard to gauge, but presumably Wellstone alive would have been pretty capable of getting his left-wing base to the polls and nobody considered him unbeatable until he died.
Oh, and one more thing: Even with all those things going for them, the Democrats barely won that Senate race in Missouri. They beat the Republicans by only two points.
How formidable is Walter Mondale as an opponent? The last time he ran for a statewide office in Minnesota was 1972. When he ran for president in 1984, he barely carried the state. He is old, at 74; he looks it; and he legitimized the age issue by using it himself in 1984, when he was on the other end of it.
If he is forced to run a real, albeit quick, campaign, Mondale could also have some problems with his base. Yes, he's a liberal Democrat. But he's not a child of the New Left, as Wellstone was. The fact that he's on the board of an HMO won't endear him to Wellstone's core constituency. Mondale also co-chaired a commission that came out for Social Security reform, including both private accounts and an increased retirement age (according to an AP report from earlier this year). Mondale can also reasonably be asked to state his position on Iraq: Would he have voted for or against the war resolution? He won't want to be against the president on this. But if he says he would have voted for the resolution, the Wellstonites will feel betrayed.
The Democrats are waiting until the last possible moment to make Mondale their official candidate no doubt realizing that the longer the campaign goes, the more vulnerable he is. To maximize the contradictions in the Mondale candidacy, Coleman needs to pack as much of a campaign as possible in the few days he'll have to run. That means challenging the elder statesman to as many debates as he can. It's a reasonable request, given the peculiar circumstances of this race. Mondale will no doubt get up to speed with today's issues. But it's hard to see him beating Coleman in debate.
I'll go out further on a limb: After the first polls on a Mondale-Coleman match-up have been done, the national Republican party will increase, not decrease, its commitment to Minnesota.
Indeed, the real question may not be whether Coleman should run a real race but whether Mondale should run at all. The attention he's getting now has to be flattering. Democrats are begging him to be the savior of his party. But does he really want to run the risk that losing this race will be his swan song? In the late 1980s, Mondale said, "One of the things I'm most proud of is that not once in my public career did I ever lose an election in Minnesota." He may be about to put that record to the test.
CORRECTION: Mondale did not endorse private accounts for Social Security or an increase in the retirement age, but in fact signed a dissenting statement to a report advocating those measures. My apologies.