Courtland Milloy's Nov. 25 column incorrectly said the late Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) cast the sole vote against a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq. Wellstone was the only senator in a close reelection race to vote no. (Published 11/26/02)

During his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame last year, Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) had this to say: "I have been able to persevere in a lot of situations because of what I learned during wrestling."

Wrestling? What did that have to do with the making of a renowned peace activist and advocate for the underdog?

"The bottom line is that wrestling will reveal a fellow's traits and basic character," Chuck Harris, Wellstone's wrestling coach at Yorktown High in Arlington, told me. "It will show whether or not he can take it when the chips are down, when the odds are against him."

In the wake of Wellstone's death in a plane crash last month, much has been written about his work on behalf of immigrants and family farmers and against racial discrimination and global inequality.

Wrestling is hardly ever mentioned. And Wellstone's reference to its significance might have been overlooked were it not for so much post-election questioning whether Democrats had lost their fighting spirit.

"This problem is not essentially about left-right ideology but about the heart and guts to lead," wrote William Greider in the Nov. 11 edition of the Nation. "Democrats have to learn the value of fighting and losing -- fighting for important ideas and principles, losing a roll call and then fighting again, until the party's convictions are made strong and clear, and popular faith is mobilized."

Even before Nov. 5, Democrats and Republicans were being likened to Pepsi and Coke: a distinction without a difference. On war against Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, bailouts for corporations and kicking the poor off welfare, the preferences of both parties seemed roughly the same.

This lack of identity among top Democrats has filtered down to the very bottom of the nation's political food chain. Informed that the D.C. Council had passed a resolution opposing U.S. military action in Iraq unless there was proof of an imminent attack, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) reacted like a colonial proxy.

"We weren't elected to do foreign policy, and I don't think we should be doing foreign policy," he said. "What's that got to do with running a city?"

When cities and states across the country were debating whether to divest public funds from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa, no one had to wonder what that had to do with running a government.

With the District poised yet again to send disproportionately high numbers of residents off to war without ever having a say in Congress, how can a mayor question the people's need to be heard?

At Yorktown High, Wellstone's name is on a plaque of champions that hangs in the school's wrestling room. But the honor is not just because of the matches he won. During one of three appearances at the Virginia state wrestling finals, the 103-pounder competed while suffering from mononucleosis and, with a determination that Coach Harris still recalls with awe, battled his way to a third-place finish.

Fast-forward to 2002: Wellstone is running for reelection to the Senate while suffering from multiple sclerosis. Despite being in a tough race, he courageously casts the lone vote in the Senate against attacking Iraq.

It's one thing to profess to having beliefs, something else to stand up for them.

As Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) put it during a memorial service for Wellstone, "He may have had a bad back, but he had a spine of steel."

Max Smith, Wellstone's high school history teacher, is credited with helping to weld Wellstone's mind with that spine.

"Paul used to tell people that I made him a liberal," Smith said. "But all I was trying to do was give the kids an opportunity to become active in politics."

Wellstone graduated in 1962 with a belief that one of government's primary purposes was to help the less fortunate. From wrestling, he learned what it took to wage the good fight.

It's a lesson more Democrats could use.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com