Sen. Rod Grams is due to march in the University of Minnesota homecoming parade at 10 a.m. But at 9:15, his press secretary, Kurt Zellers, calls a reporter en route to the parade. "It started without us," he warns. Half an hour later, Zellers calls again to confirm the worst: "The parade is over."
Talk about ready-made metaphors.
If you were constructing a nightmare scenario for an incumbent senator seeking reelection, it would go something like this: First, reports would surface that the candidate, divorced during his term in office, has been having a longtime romantic relationship with an aide. Then that same aide is investigated by the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for an alleged dirty tricks campaign.
But why stop there? Add the senator's son getting arrested in possession of a stolen car and a shotgun. If you're feeling extra sadistic, give the senator an opponent who is a multimillionaire willing to spend whatever it takes to paint the senator as a far-right-wing-nut in the state of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone.
That, in a nutshell, is Rod Grams's lot this year. Two months ago, he appeared to be cruising to reelection while the Democrats squabbled among themselves. The eventual Democratic nominee, Mark Dayton, was seen then as a dilettante, a lightweight and a failed gubernatorial candidate. "Six months ago Minnesotans by a better than 2-to-1 margin approved of the way I was doing my job in Washington," says the first-term Republican. "Even in the early polls this summer, they had me beating everybody, including Mark Dayton."
But then came the scandals. And after the Sept. 12 primary came an advertising barrage by Dayton, a department store heir and former state auditor. Dayton, 53, will spend about $8.8 million, almost all of that his own money, much more than Grams's $3.1 million.
Republican senators from Delaware, Michigan, Montana, Missouri and Washington are also in some jeopardy, while Democrat Chuck Robb is in trouble in Virginia. But Grams is in the most peril. The latest poll by the Minneapolis Star Tribune shows him down 49 percent to 37 percent--this in a state where George W. Bush is leading.
What's a guy to do in such a situation? Grams asked his mother, Audrey, to cut a campaign ad. "Have you ever had someone spend a million dollars a week telling lies about someone you love?" she asks in the spot. She dismisses Dayton with the phrase "Uff-da!," a Norwegian equivalent of "Oy vey."
Dogged by Scandal
After the mishap at the homecoming parade, Grams's next stop is Anoka, Minn., his home town (he grew up on a nearby farm), which is expecting 20,000 people for its Halloween parade. Before the parade starts, Grams works the crowd, which is bundled and sitting on blankets to ward off the 44-degree chill. This is obviously Grams territory. "Sure I'll vote for him," says Keith McFerran, a 78-year-old driver. When runners in costume race down the parade route dressed as Santas, vampires, cows and sumo wrestlers, several, including a man in a clown outfit, shout their support to Grams.
Yet even in the bosom of his home town, Grams can't escape the scandals. As Grams works his way down the line of parade viewers, a man with a shaggy beard and sunglasses, sitting in a Miller Lite lawn chair and smoking a cigarette, greets the senator. "Hey Rod, my son was in jail with your son," says the man, who is wearing a Dayton pin and identifies himself as David Nelson. Grams keeps a smile fixed on his face. "We don't need that," he says, and hustles away.
His troubled 22-year-old son, Morgan, was arrested in New Mexico in September and charged with possession of a firearm and a stolen vehicle, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, resisting arrest and other related charges. A few weeks earlier, a top adviser, Christine Gunhus, had computers and diskettes taken from her home by the authorities investigating e-mails sent out during the Democratic primary disparaging one of the contenders. Gunhus has been identified in media reports as Grams's girlfriend; the senator, who divorced in 1996, declines to discuss it.
Grams suspects that the exposure of his personal woes, which figure prominently in Minnesota news, is the work of the author of all his troubles: Dayton. "It comes from everywhere around him," Grams says. "It's an orchestrated event." Grams hopes this will backfire. "I think it's a detrimental thing for them to do because there are so many people who have suffered the same kind of problems that my family has, and people feel it's unfair to attack you on that," he says.
"Absolutely not," says Sharon Ruhland, Dayton's spokeswoman. Though the Dayton campaign talks about the dirty tricks involving Gunhus, they've had "nothing, nothing, nothing" to do with personal attacks on Grams, she says.
The Man, the Image
Grams, though spending most of his time on the receiving end, isn't above personal politics. He has called Dayton a "drug lord" because of his investments in pharmaceutical companies, and he pressured Dayton to release FBI files from when Dayton funded the Black Panthers and made Richard Nixon's enemies list. He accuses Dayton of "trying to buy a U.S. Senate seat." Mostly, though, Grams paints Dayton as a liberal in disguise. "He's trying to hoodwink Minnesotans," the senator says.
Of course, being a liberal in Minnesota isn't such a crime. Grams acknowledges that the land of Mondale is "quite a socialist type of state." But Grams remains fiercely conservative, a favorite of the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition. "I'm considered in our conference to be the loudest voice for the taxpayers, and I take that with a lot of pride," he says. He favors the complete privatization of Social Security.
Grams's politics make him a polarizing figure here. After missing the Minnesota homecoming parade, Grams lingers outside the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome to work the crowd. The 52-year-old senator, who spent 23 years as a broadcaster and one term in the House before his 1994 election, meets plenty of well-wishers, including a woman who says she's praying for him and others shouting "Good luck, Rod." But there's also the person who hisses at him, and one woman who politely shakes his hand and then says to a friend while walking away: "What should I say: 'I'm not voting for you?' "
It's not clear how much of Grams's trouble has been caused by Dayton and by his status as a conservative in a progressive state. To many people, even some supporters, the problem is Grams himself, for projecting the image of a loser. Grams, though tall and reasonably handsome in his bluejeans and green jacket, looks the part of Charlie Brown, with bird droppings on his back and an untied shoelace.
To most everybody, Grams says the same thing: "I need your help." When a scalper approaches Grams and some aides and asks, "You need tickets?" Grams's field director replies: "We need votes." In an interview, Grams candidly acknowledges that "we're a little bit farther behind than I thought we'd be." But he believes he's "moving in the right direction," and indeed the polls seem to be tightening.
But Grams can't shake a certain air of doom. After the parade in Anoka, Grams meets Dayton and a third-party candidate for a radio debate in Minneapolis. Dayton, dressed like a farmer in plaid shirt and faded pants, says nothing to Grams when he enters. Grams, jiggling his foot under the table, attacks Dayton throughout the debate: for running for governor with an "anti-farm" running mate, for moving family money to South Dakota to dodge taxes, for having "expensive polls and East Coast consultants," and for having "no real definite plans, just 'maybes' and 'I'll work on it.' "
Dayton, playing the front-runner, ignores most of the attacks. Dayton apparently feels no more need to undermine Grams. Grams, after all, has done a good job of that himself. Uff-da.