Like any good politician, Norm Coleman works exceedingly hard -- especially when it comes to telling voters how exceedingly hard he is working.
"We're working so hard, so hard," Coleman screams to a roomful of supporters at O'Gara's Bar and Grill. He stabs the air with his index finger to stress how invigorated he feels after a day that has begun with a conference call at 4:45 a.m. and is taking him on a six-stop, 785-mile flight around the state in a turboprop Beechcraft airplane.
He's been running hard for the Senate for 15 months, he says. Just like he's worked for everything he's ever gotten in his life. And just like he plans to do for the next five days, right up through Election Day. Coleman was born in Brooklyn, middle-class, one of eight kids. "This race is not about entitlement," he says. "It's about" -- any guesses? -- "hard work."
Except that in Norm Coleman's annals of hard work, Wednesday is a watershed. It is, in fact, a return to work after a four-day hiatus that began with the death of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Paul Wellstone, in a plane crash a week ago. Coleman spent the weekend at home in "seclusion," a state that, according to one high-level adviser, translated to hours in meetings and phone calls with his staff, advisers and Republican political operatives from Washington.
Walter Mondale, the former senator and vice president, took Wellstone's spot on the ballot after a memorial service Tuesday night that offended many with its partisan undercurrent. That service and Mondale's official entry into the race signaled the end of respectful silence and the start of Coleman's delicate foray into the politics of grief.
His campaign received an unexpected flood of contributions from people who were offended by the Wellstone memorial service -- $150,000 on Wednesday alone, Republican officials say. Now, Coleman must draw distinctions between himself and the opposition while not appearing insensitive to Wellstone's memory or overly deferential to Mondale's stature.
Suddenly, two planeloads of press are trailing him, monitoring him for traces of insensitivity. "Everything is eggshells," says Bill Walsh, the deputy executive director of the state Republican Party. Put another way: "Norm's got to be careful not to say something that makes him sound like a pig," says Steven Stromberg, a Coleman supporter who attended the rally in St. Paul.
Coleman has a solid record in the basic political skill of not sounding like a pig. A former Democrat who previously supported Bill Clinton (and Wellstone), Coleman is a polished and popular former mayor of St. Paul who was recruited to run by the Bush White House. He has a baby face, a lantern jaw and a spectacular head of brown hair that poufs up in a Clintonesque helmet. He remembers names, is diligent with smiles and eye contact and stays on message, barely acknowledging the weirdness of his predicament. "When the unimaginable happens, there's no playbook," he says in a brief interview after his speech. "You just respond with your heart and you hope it's the right thing."
In large part, Coleman is finessing his delicate environment by speaking in political code. He makes repeated references to how he's been campaigning for this job for 15 months -- and he needn't add Mondale has not. This election is about more than just "holding a place," he says. "It's about the future" (he's 53), not the past (Mondale is 74). He reinforces this message while appearing to pay homage to Mondale, comparing the former vice president to a face on Mount Rushmore.
When Coleman is asked about the rally-like tone of the Wellstone memorial on Tuesday, he shrugs, says he'll "leave it up to the voters of Minnesota" to decide whether it was in bad taste. But, he is quick to confide, a number of people came up to him after the memorial service and apologized.
Coleman mentions this to five people as he wades through a crowd of supporters and media at O'Gara's. On that same walk -- and in his speech beforehand -- Coleman makes at least 23 references to things that underscore the importance of hard work, namely his own.
This campaign is "not about entitlement," he says, and no one is "handed anything in life." Minnesotans understand the "importance of hard work," all of which segues cleanly into the importance of creating jobs, 18,000 of which he created as mayor of St. Paul. "I've done that work," he says.
It's takes little work to decode Coleman's sledgehammer emphasis on hard work. He is reminding voters of his relative youth and vigor, aligning himself with the state's "working people" and selling the basic Republican ethic of self-reliance. In addition, he is declaring a return to normalcy in this, the nation's most abnormal Senate campaign.
It has been a fabulous return to work, Coleman says, a day of big crowds, great optimism and the requisite "palpable energy" everywhere he goes. He is smart, savvy and charismatic, a model candidate. By the same token, Coleman's polish and telegenic perfection could also be his biggest obstacle.
"He doesn't have a familiar Minnesota style," says Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "This state, more than any other state, values a level of authenticity."
Voters here have especially sharp antennae for excessive polish and have traditionally preferred the rumpled familiarity of icons such as Mondale, Wellstone and Hubert Humphrey. This was an issue for Coleman even before Wellstone's death. He ran an unsuccessful race for governor in 1998 in which he struggled to move beyond his base of voters in St. Paul and transplants from the Twin Cities suburbs. He is a political pragmatist who, in his race against the maverick Wellstone, always trumpeted his own "mainstream" appeal. The senators he says he most admires -- Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), Zell Miller (D-Ga.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) -- are people who can "reach across the aisle and get things done." And it is unfair, he says, to equate his appreciation for mainstream consensus to a taint of political smoothness.
"I've worked for everything I've ever had," Coleman said after a debate with Wellstone in Moorhead, Minn., 10 days before Wellstone died. Coleman worked with labor leaders, business leaders, attended law school at night while working during the day. Even during the grind of this campaign, he drives in car pools for his two teenage children. "I grew up middle-class and I am middle-class," Coleman says, before concluding that "with hard work, you can accomplish anything."
That, he says, is the X-factor in this race: In the next four days, Coleman will run a campaign that is about diligence. And that, he tells voters, will transcend all the ghosts and legends and distractions that confront him in these final campaign days.
At 7:30 on Wednesday night, Coleman is wading through a throng of supporters on his way to a room where he will watch Mondale accept the nomination of the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. He signs a T-shirt for an elderly woman in a wheelchair and high-fives a man who vows "not to let the Democrats steal this election" and autographs a Coleman sign that another man is brandishing in the highest form of Minnesota tribute -- on a hockey stick.
Afterward, Coleman greets a clot of supporters who are holding signs at Snelling and Selby streets. "This has been such a humbling few days," says Christian Iversen, a supporter from Oakdale. Nearby, Austin Lindstrom, 26, holds a sign that says "Honk if you're an idiot." A Coleman supporter gets in his face as snow falls and drivers pass in a procession of honks.
It's 8:30 and Coleman is on his way home for a few hours of sleep before he heads off again, early the next morning, on a flight that will take him to Moorhead, East Grand Forks, Willmar and then Mankato before returning to St. Paul. He is asked how he feels, how he's holding up. "Fantastic," he says. "I'm back at work."