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Democrat Senator Finds Anti-War Vote Does Not Hurt

Reuters, 25 October 2002


ELK RIVER, Minn. (Reuters) - Sen. Paul Wellstone thought he might be sacrificing his political career when he voted against a resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war against Iraq earlier this month.

But the Minnesota Democrat, locked in a tight re-election battle with Republican Norm Coleman, no longer thinks so.

"I agonized over what to do. I told my wife it might be the end of the race. The conventional wisdom in Washington was that if you cast that vote, you lose," Wellstone told Reuters.

"But I don't feel that here. People have been very respectful of my decision whether they agree with it or not. And many people seem quite undecided and worried about the war, especially about the United States going it alone," he said.

Wellstone was the only Democrat facing a difficult reelection battle to vote against the resolution, which passed both houses of Congress easily.

Although opinion polls indicate that around 60 percent of Americans support Bush's Iraq policy, that figure drops dramatically when voters are asked if they would still back a military campaign if the United States had to fight without allies or one that cost thousands of American lives. That palpable concern comes through on the campaign trail.

In a diner in Elk River, a small town 45 minutes outside Minneapolis, retired teacher Peter Aguilar reflected the cautious consensus. A military veteran, he said he was not against going to war against Iraq on principle but would like to see Bush explore all other options first.

"We should go in there as a last resort. I have no doubt that our military is capable of taking care of the Iraqi forces, but what's going to happen afterward? And I'm in favor, if possible, of having other nations with us," he said.

The latest polls show Wellstone ahead of Coleman by around 6 percentage points, a week and a half before the election. If anything, his lead has widened slightly since the vote. The battle may play a crucial part in deciding whether Democrats can retain control of the Senate.

Bush May Visit Again

Bush has visited the state four times to drum up support for Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul, and may drop in again before Election Day on Nov. 5. Wellstone also complains that a conservative public interest group based in Virginia called Americans for Job Security was pouring $1 million into television advertisements attacking him.

Coleman said he would try to use Wellstone's vote to argue that his opponent was "on the extreme and at odds with the way folk are thinking." But Wellstone aides said the Republican had recently been raising the issue less often.

Some voters suggested that Wellstone would have paid a much higher price for supporting the resolution with his liberal base than he did for opposing it.

"I loved his Iraq vote. It's ridiculous to go to war on Iraq. We need to concentrate on problems here like education," said secretary Ann Dubovich.

Peter Andersen, an editor and publisher in Elk River said: "I don't think the Iraq vote will hurt him. Everybody in Minnesota knows him and knows where he stands. That's why there are so few undecided voters."

As if to bear this out, the house right next door Wellstone's St. Paul duplex has two giant "Vote Coleman" signs in the front yard. But the senator assured this reporter that most of his neighbors were with him.

Democratic Party leaders were anxious to get the Iraq debate out of the way so they could focus on issues like the economy and corporate corruption where they believe Bush and the Republicans are vulnerable.

But Wellstone said that was a false dichotomy. The Iraq issue was not going to go away and the economy was not going away either. Both issues remained dominant in voters' minds.

"It's all of the above, all of it. Minnesotans have a lot of concerns. The sons and daughters of many of them could soon be in harm's way in Iraq. Iraq comes up everywhere. But it's also true that people are really worried about the economy and their retirement funds and their health care," he said.

"Since so many people are undecided, they want to be sure that the vote you rendered was authentic and based on your best judgement rather than political calculations," he said.

Wellstone said the Bush administration had been forced to take account of voters' reservations, which explained why it was working so hard to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq.

He added that he had learned one important lesson from the 1991 Gulf War, which he also opposed. That was, if and when war broke out, it was crucial to support the country's fighting men and women.

"All of us will make a distinction between the mission, which we might doubt, and the men and women conducting the mission, whom we support," he said.

Copyright © 2002 X
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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