MINNEAPOLIS -- Paul Wellstone describes himself as "the perfect underdog," perfection meaning that when the votes were counted a week ago in Minnesota, he had become the overdog, and not by a whisker.

With one exception, every United States senator who stood for reelection this year will return to Washington -- a postwar record, a pundit's embarrassment. Still, as an expression of whatever anti-politics may be out there, Wellstone's exceptional victory will do nicely.

High-minded and high-hatted, two-term Republican Rudy Boschwitz ignored him; it seemed like a good idea at the time. The national Democratic Party, with much more serious Senate challengers to worry about, found Wellstone a bit of a pest. And maybe even the wrong kind of Democrat: a college professor with dangerously progressive ideas, an energetic Jesse Jackson supporter in the 1988 primaries, a grass-roots organizer who'd been arrested for sitting in at a bank with farm foreclosure protesters, a loser in his only previous electoral contest (as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate for state auditor in 1982) whose name, as of just three months ago, few Minnesotans even recognized.

And a weird politician to boot. He's emotional. He's restless. He's short. He's blunt. He doesn't like suits or haircuts. He campaigned on a shoestring (he spent $1 million to Boschwitz's $7 million), riding a battered green school bus, sleeping on floors and appearing in a few zany commercials. And now he's the senator-elect from Minnesota, relishing the chance to live up to his advance billing as the most liberal member of the upper chamber.

"Minnesota has thrust forward some pretty impressive people in this century," Wellstone says. He doesn't need to name them. His explosive speaking style, not to mention his bread-and-butter populism, are compared constantly to Hubert Humphrey's. And his bedraggled army of youthful volunteers, inspired by crusade and candidate alike, is reminiscent of Eugene McCarthy's.

Wellstone confesses to few doubts about his ability to function in Washington without turning into the enemy, and at this point, why should he have them? He points out that, after all, he's a policy person too -- he teaches political science at Carleton College in Northfield, and has lobbied the Minnesota legislature on farm and energy issues. "I loooove policy," he says.

He is willing to speculate only that, as a senator, "I would become impatient, I'm sure, with the way the debate is framed. I will want to widen the definition of what's realistic. I'm sure I'll be frustrated -- not just with Republicans, but with some Democrats too."

Lest he be misunderstood, he takes great care to add this defiant word: "I'm not coming to Washington to be marginal."

Fun in Fast-Forward Forty-six-year-old Paul David Wellstone, a compact man coiled tight -- he is a former wrestler, with a bad back to remind him -- doesn't minimize what he calls "the winds and tides" that bore him to his 52 percent to 48 percent victory over Boschwitz. For one thing, it's those winds and tides of economic and political discontent that he wants to represent.

"If people are in the mood that everything's okay, Jack, so-and-so has served us well, there's no reason to change -- then I'm the worst kind of candidate," he said the other day, the victor still talking like a challenger in an upstairs room of an adviser's Minneapolis house. "But if people are unsettled and are starting to say things should be shaken up, we've had it with this, then I'm a really strong candidate."

But Wellstone also insists that "the issues were on our side. I thought progressive politics are winning politics within the Democratic Party." He poses his views explicitly against those of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist alliance that wants to cleanse the party of its liberal hobgoblins. What's more, he says, "I never accepted the {Republican} analysis during that 1980s that we had this conservative America with everybody marching to the tune of a 19th-century drummer and everybody celebrating the buck, the flag and nothing else. I never thought that was true."

Even some of Wellstone's supporters think he is confusing inchoate anti-Washington sentiment with class wrath -- especially given Minnesota's relative economic health. "We'll have years ridding Paul of his populist notions," remarks George Latimer, the former Democratic mayor of St. Paul, who also calls him "a marvelous campaigner ... about as close to being the perfect candidate for these times against that guy as you could imagine."

Indeed, Wellstone's insurgent style may have transcended his political substance. "So he was arrested for sitting in with farmers?" Wellstone says, playing out the imagined conversation: "Okay, well, at least he acts on what he believes in. Yeah, he is outspoken. Maybe a little too liberal -- or, people use the word 'radical' -- for us. Buuut, he does believe what he says. And he does say what he believes."

Wellstone says he understood from the beginning -- he campaigned for 18 months -- that "there was no way anybody could beat Rudy Boschwitz trying to match his TV campaign." So it was that he undertook his grueling school-bus-borne campaign of stump speaking and kibitzing with voters in crossroads cafes, culminating in an astonishing get-out-the-vote effort -- 700,000 telephone calls in the last four days of the campaign, he says.

Even so, Wellstone's extraordinary television commercials made him a credible candidate in the first place -- simultaneously introducing him to Minnesota voters and teaching them to read Boschwitz's polished TV blitz as cynical imagemaking.

In one of the early messages, "Fast-Paced Paul," Wellstone struts from frame to frame, explaining apologetically that he doesn't have the money to buy much television time so he has to talk fast (which he does anyway, without any technological assistance). In 30 seconds, he shows people his modest house in Northfield, introduces his family (including his older son, David, a southern Minnesota farmer), and recites his accomplishments as a rural organizer and advocate of working people, all in antic fast-forward.

His experienced political handlers -- and for a while, even Wellstone himself -- were concerned the commercial would make him look farcical, "un-senatorial." But the Minneapolis advertising man who created the commercials, William Hillsman, believes that was precisely their objective. Worrying about looking "senatorial" is "playing the political game again. ... Who the hell would want to look senatorial?"

These first Wellstone commercials had an even greater impact than they might have in a year when the print press has been assiduously covering and analyzing political messages on television. His were so different that they were given second and third lives as news stories in Minnesota papers, and then by word of mouth.

This was especially so with "Looking for Rudy." Hillsman, a Carleton College alumnus who has never made political messages before, fondly appropriated filmmaker Michael Moore's guerrilla approach in "Roger & Me." Wellstone was captured by hand-held videocam searching for his "invisible" opponent all around Minnesota, successfully capitalizing on Boschwitz's inability to leave Washington during the budget mess.

Trailed by a camera crew, who would have only one chance to record the scene, Wellstone appears unannounced at Boschwitz's St. Paul Senate office, where he spars good-naturedly with women staffers. After he borrows a ballpoint pen to leave his phone number for the senator, he asks whether he can keep it. The Wellstone campaign isn't rich.

On they go in search of Rudy Boschwitz, turning up at his Minneapolis campaign headquarters. There they are confronted by two big guys in suits who tell him, "We don't like strangers walking around here." The audience could understand who the stranger was, and it wasn't Wellstone. "You couldn't have scripted that," says Hillsman.

"How do you take on someone so wealthy and powerful?" Wellstone later reflects. "You jab with humor." Though "Looking for Rudy," a two-minute production, aired only twice, its coverage was such that it became a refrain at every campaign appearance he made, Wellstone says. "Have you found him yet?" Minnesotans would ask, all a-chuckle. "That's no small achievement," he says, "getting people to smile about politics."

Goliath Lends a Hand Paul Wellstone had many things going for him -- the freshness of his approach, the restiveness of the electorate -- but he owes much to Rudy Boschwitz and Minnesota's ill-starred Independent Republican Party. The senator, so comfortably ahead in the early soundings that the Democrats' best hope, Walter Mondale, declined to take him on, decided to treat his opponent as the hopeless fringe candidate he certainly looked like.

Boschwitz said in August he'd beat Wellstone by 20 points, and proceeded to act accordingly. Republicans (and Democrats) in Minnesota are still scratching their heads about Boschwitz's failure to paint Wellstone as the wild-eyed radical; frankly, it would have been easy. Instead, Wellstone set the agenda from the outset, casting Boschwitz as the out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway incumbent whose time had come and gone.

The Boschwitz ads, says political consultant William Morris, who worked on Boschwitz's first race for the Senate in 1978, were "singularly inept." The incumbent's early spots were of the feel-good school. "Rudy Boschwitz and the people of Minnesota: Friends," one declared.

Senator Boschwitz brought in the Republican Party's big guns, including President Bush twice, at a time when such Washington insiders could only have been a burden. Wellstone, meanwhile, said no thanks to visits from Senate Democrats like Nebraska's Bob Kerrey, preferring to stick to a go-it-alone approach untainted by even a hint of Washington.

Relentlessly Wellstone tied the moneyed Boschwitz to his oil company contributions and out-of-state PACs; for his own part, Wellstone said, he would take no money from out-of-state PACs -- not that many were trying to help. "I was positive that his money had to become his weakness," Wellstone says, and evidently it did.

And then, as the Wellstone campaign picked up momentum in the early fall, Boschwitz found himself shackled for real by his incumbency -- unable to leave Washington to campaign at home, underscoring his role in the Washington deficit stalemate. When the press of Senate business threatened to keep Boschwitz away from any campaign debate in Minnesota, Wellstone proposed to hold it in Washington -- and despite his visible nervousness wasted no chance during the 90-minute ordeal to remind voters of the venue and the reasons for it.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, the next blow fell. The hapless Republican candidate for governor, Jon Grunseth, was felled by charges of sexual peccadilloes and bounced from the ticket nine days before the election. Boschwitz, as the Republicans' de facto leader -- his colleague David Durenberger having ceded the title after his Senate denunciation for financial conduct -- was tarnished by the party's spectacular troubles.

Such was the volatility of the Senate race in its closing weeks that even without this embarrassment of embarrassments, Boschwitz might well have eked out a victory. A series of hard-hitting anti-Wellstone ads had belatedly been produced, charging that Wellstone wanted to eliminate Medicare, that he favored abortions in the ninth month of pregnancy and that he wanted hunting rifles confiscated. Wellstone denounced them as lies, but they were hitting home ("we were terrified," said one Wellstone aide) and driving Boschwitz's numbers up again.

Then, from the jaws of victory, came the dumbest, and the ugliest, moment of the campaign: the Boschwitz campaign's letter "To Our Friends in the Minnesota Jewish Community."

The direct-mail piece, signed by 72 Jewish Boschwitz supporters (not all of whom knew its contents), reached many Jewish households in Minnesota the Saturday before the election. "Because of his intense interest in all things Jewish," the letter said, Boschwitz "is known as 'the Rabbi of the Senate.' " But Wellstone, like Boschwitz a Jew, was said to have "no connection whatsoever with the Jewish community or our communal life." In a reference to Sheila Wellstone's Southern Baptist upbringing, the letter pointed out that their "children were brought up as non-Jews. He represents a disturbing element in American politics. He was Jesse Jackson's Minnesota state co-chairman in the 1988 presidential campaign."

The letter was front-page news across Minnesota the next day, and it had a devastating effect on the Boschwitz candidacy, far beyond the state's tiny Jewish community. Not only did the letter attempt to question Wellstone's religious convictions, which did not sit well in a state where religious pluralism and individual tolerance are as strong as anywhere in the nation, but it also reminded voters of something else about Wellstone. As a still-incredulous Latimer puts it, "Was Boschwitz trying to plant the suspicion that there's something wrong with raising your children as Christians? It was the most boneheaded thing I could imagine."

Boschwitz, a steadfast defender of Israel in the Senate, got a slap heard all the way from Israel. "In Minnesota this week," wrote Yo'av Karny, Washington correspondent of the newspaper Ha'aretz, "the bad Jew defeated the good Jew. Thank God." Boschwitz's own rabbi in Minneapolis, Temple Israel's Stephen Pinsky, devoted his sermon last Friday to an astonishingly tough denunciation of the stunt -- and made a point of inviting the Wellstones to be there to hear it.

It might not have mattered by then, but an embattled Boschwitz declined to repudiate the letter until Minnesotans had repudiated him. He has since apologized -- in general terms, without mentioning Wellstone, in a press release -- but has not, to this day, called Wellstone either to apologize personally or to congratulate him on his victory. When Wellstone, who's in town for Senate orientation, bumped into Boschwitz in the Senate cafeteria yesterday, his reception was brusque.

Wellstone has accepted the public apology, and indicated he wants the matter to rest. But he cannot conceal his feelings. "To me, being a Jew is a constant negotiation with God. And that hurt."

Home Again Though 21 years in Northfield have made him a card-carrying Minnesotan, when Wellstone comes to Washington in January he will actually be coming home. He was born at George Washington University Hospital and grew up in Arlington. His mother, Minnie, was a cafeteria worker, and now lives in a Northfield nursing home; his father, Leon, an immigrant from Siberia who died seven years ago, earned his living working for Edward R. Murrow at the U.S. Information Agency. But Leon was, more important, a prodigious journal-keeper and frustrated playwright, an autodidact (he spoke 10 languages) and a formidable intellectual mentor to his younger son.

"He was absolutely the most important person in my life," Wellstone says. "For him it was ideas and books and teaching," he says, simulating his father's deep-voiced exhortations.

So it was that Wellstone emerged from the University of North Carolina in the late '60s a budding teacher -- energized in those years by the civil rights movement in North Carolina. Wellstone even recalls hearing the radio broadcasts Jesse Helms made in that era. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer last week, "I have despised him ever since," a fine how-do-you-do to the gentleman from North Carolina.

It was at Chapel Hill that Wellstone married his high school honey when they were both 19. He and Sheila, who has become one of his trusted political advisers, had their first child a year later. (Two others have followed. Marcia, 21, is at the University of Wisconsin; Mark, 19, is a high school senior and varsity wrestler.)

Being a family man at the time, Wellstone remarks, he was less subject than most to the countercultural influences of the 1960s. Not so the political ones. He went on to take his doctoral degree in political science at North Carolina -- his dissertation was titled "Black Militants in the Ghetto: Why They Believe in Violence." (A Boschwitz campaign staffer carried a copy around during the Senate campaign, but evidently it wasn't sufficiently incendiary for Minnesotans.)

The Wellstones moved to Northfield when he received a teaching appointment at Carleton in 1969, planning to stay only a year or two. By the time they decided they liked it, it was the Carleton administration that began to have its doubts. The college's attempt to deny Wellstone tenure, reportedly because of his campus rabble-rousing during the Vietnam War, drew loud student protest in defense of this popular teacher -- and an eventual resolution in his favor when two outside academic referees found no reason to deny him tenure.

His two decades in Northfield have been characterized as much by his activities outside the classroom as in -- notably his fieldwork as a community organizer in Minnesota, his writings for such publications as the Progressive and the Nation, and his involvement in electoral politics. In 1982, he ran on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor ticket for state auditor -- against Arne Carlson, today's Republican governor-elect, as it happens -- and lost in part because Carlson charged that Wellstone once had been diagnosed with a reading problem that gives him difficulty understanding graphs and charts. Wellstone says it isn't so.

Wellstone is in his second term on the Democratic National Committee and in 1988 chaired Jesse Jackson's primary campaign in Minnesota. That association ("empowerment to me is a very good word") suggests his ideological affinities, though he does take pains to distance himself from Jackson's views toward Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. ("We've had major disagreements. ... I have a different view of Arafat, never have trusted him.")

Wellstone is not without a pragmatic streak, either. After the 1988 Democratic convention, he served as co-chairman of the Dukakis campaign in Minnesota. It was Dukakis's campaign manager there, Pat Forceia, who two years later became the key strategist of Wellstone's Senate campaign, and was, additionally, his eyes and ears and mouth inside the Beltway. Wellstone's campaign manager, who will become his chief of staff in the Senate, was John Blackshaw, a California lawyer who once worked as legislative assistant to Harrison Williams, the ex-senator from New Jersey.

But Wellstone will, he says, ride the old green school bus to Washington in January, assuming it doesn't break down again. And for him, that will be the real beginning.

"It's a wonderful story," Wellstone says of the campaign just past. "Big upset. David versus Goliath. The bus, the whole thing. But that's not the end of it. It's not just this thing that happened in Minnesota. It's about what's happening in the '90s."