he first and most important conclusion any observer should draw from the debate between Minnesota Republican Senate candidate Norm Coleman and Democrat Walter Mondale is this: Coleman can win at the polls tomorrow. He certainly won the debate today.
In an hour of solid back-and-forth at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Coleman succeeded in his main challenge, which was to criticize Mondale's record and positions without appearing to dis the former vice president. Throughout, the 53 year-old Coleman referred to Mondale as "Mr. Vice President," while the 74 year-old Mondale called Coleman "Norm."
Coleman began by skillfully disavowing the idea that the election is about Mondale's age while making clear that Mondale is a figure from the past. "This election is about Minnesota's future," Coleman said. "It's not about Vice President Mondale's age, it's not about my age, it's about the age in which we live." Coleman then added that the best candidate is the one who is "best prepared for a vision for the future, with the energy and vitality to move that vision forward." A glance at the other side of the table made the age difference between the two men startlingly clear.
Mondale responded by going on the attack. "I don't think we agree on the future," he told Coleman. "You're supporting the drug industry's [prescription drug] bill. You're supporting the president's tax cut bill...You have called for drilling in the Arctic." Looking at Coleman, Mondale said, "Your campaign is a poster child for what's wrong in politics." Mondale accused Coleman of taking "not thousands, but millions of dollars" from corporations like Enron and a company Mondale called "World Dot Com."
Coleman stressed his record as mayor of St. Paul. He said on several occasions that in his eight years in office he had not raised taxes and the city's economy had grown by 18 thousand jobs. That was done, Coleman said, by bipartisan action, which he said makes him particularly qualified to help "change the tone" in Washington.
Coleman also worked hard to present himself as a pragmatist. When Mondale said, "The problem with your drug bill is that it's what the pharmaceutical companies want," Coleman answered that what he really wants most is to pass a prescription drug bill. "We could fight endlessly over partisan politics," Coleman said, but he wants a bill that will not only pass Congress but also win the president's signature, thus bringing actual benefits to seniors.
The sharpest exchange of the debate came over the issue of abortion. When asked about confirming the president's judicial nominees, Coleman said he did not believe in litmus tests, while Mondale said, "I believe in choice [on abortion]...I believe it is so fundamental, it is in the Constitution, that we should confirm judges on that basis."
Mondale accused Coleman of "trying to slide around some very fundamental questions about the future of this country and its most sacred values of justice." Shaking his finger at Coleman, he said, "What you're doing is sticking with the right wing and pretending to change the tone. Norm, we know you, we've seen you, we've seen you shift around."
A short time later, when Coleman asked Mondale, "Could you find common ground on the issue of partial birth abortion? Do you believe parents should be involved?" Mondale shot back that Coleman was "an arbitrary right-to-lifer." In what would become the most dramatic moment of the debate, Coleman answered that he and his wife had had two children who died young. "I have a deep and profound respect for the value of life," Coleman said. "It's not arbitrary. Please do not describe it as arbitrary."
The response knocked Mondale back on his feet. Even in an emotional moment, Coleman had kept his cool and respectful tone, leaving the former vice president without an effective response.
Mondale then raised the question of whether Coleman would reflexively side with President George W. Bush in Washington debates. Coleman stressed that it would be good for Minnesota to have a senator who had a good relationship with the president, although he said he disagrees with Bush on some issues like trade with Cuba.
Mondale answered by attacking the president's tax cut, taking the standard Democratic position that it gives too much to the richest Americans. He continued the attack by telling Coleman, "You have taken huge amounts of special interest money in this campaign...and every position that you have taken has lined right up with them."
In response, Coleman asked if Mondale would break with trial lawyers, a key Democratic constituency, in the debate over a terrorism insurance bill. Without such insurance, Coleman said, the giant Mall of America in Minnesota would not be built today. "I will work to resolve that issue," was all Mondale would say.
A written question from an audience member asked Mondale if he would have voted against the bill to authorize the president to use force in Iraq. "If the UN doesn't do anything," the question asked, "what should the U.S. do?" Mondale answered that "We have to reserve the right if necessary to go back and form an alliance with allies around the world to make certain that Saddam Hussein is constrained." But later Mondale seemed to insist that the U.S. should have United Nations Security Council approval before taking any action.
Coleman scored points by answering that "the reality is that 77 senators said the way to do that is to come together as Americans" to approve the use of force. "Had we taken the other approach," Coleman explained, "we would be negotiating from weakness. The world community would have said the U.S. can't come together, Congress can't come together."
Throughout, Coleman stuck carefully to his "Mr. Vice President" tone. When the two clashed later, Mondale said, "Please, Norman," while Coleman answered, "You know something, I'll defer to the vice president."
Another question from the audience said that Mondale had "authored many of the welfare laws that were changed in 1996," and asked Mondale whether welfare reform was a good thing. Mondale conceded that some parts of welfare reform "do make sense," but quickly retreated to the Democratic line that a faltering economy means that the reforms should be amended. "The economy is slipping and there may not be jobs," Mondale said.
In response, Coleman made another effective point when he said that Mondale, many decades ago, had helped create "a system that was well-intentioned, but whose results were disastrous...Welfare was a good idea when the vice president originally worked on it a long time ago, but we need to change it."
Shortly afterward, Mondale faltered badly when a question from the audience asked if he has a "plan for keeping all of Minnesota on the cutting edge of technology." Apparently knowing little about the subject, Mondale answered that he wants to see "a growing economy," "leadership that builds trust," and leaders who "support education that produces economic growth." Coleman, in a response that highlighted the contrast between the two men's experience, stressed the need to built a wireless infrastructure across the state.
Finally, near the end of the debate, Coleman told Mondale that, "We each have governed." Coleman again cited his record as mayor of St. Paul, and then, referring to the years of the Carter/Mondale administration, said that when the former vice president governed, "we had 24 percent interest rates and double digit inflation."
A clearly defensive Mondale answered, "This election is about the future. It's not about the collapse of the Shah in 1979, and it's not about Afghanistan in 1980." It did not seem to be entirely on point; perhaps Mondale had prepared that line in response to a foreign policy question and, with time running out, simply threw it out in response to Coleman's recitation of the grim economic facts of the Carter/Mondale years.
When the debate ended, Coleman jumped up, walked around the table, and shook Mondale's hand. Having the debate hours before the polls open was a tremendous gamble for both men. A smiling Coleman cool, respectful, but still challenging seemed to realize that he had won.