About 2:30 a.m. one morning during the Democratic midterm convention in Memphis last December, George Mische, a city councilman from St. Cloud, Minn., spotted Hamilton Jordan in a saloon called Blues Alley.
Mische, who got his start in politics as an antiwar demonstrator, is not a man to hide his emotions. Besides, it is not often that an obscure city councilman gets a crack at a top presidential adviser. So Mische launched a verbal assault on Jordan and his boss, President Carter.
Carter, Mische declared, was a disaster as president. His budget was a disgrace for a Democrat. His defense spending policy would lead to another Vietnam.
Emotions flared. Eventually, one of Jordan's companions interceded to prevent a fistfight. "It was a flaming argument between a northern Democrat and a southern one," Mische recalls. "He said I was full of BS. I said I may very well be full of it, but Jimmy Carter's policies are going to defeat him."
Today, Mische, Rep. Rich Nolan (D-Minn.) and about 260 other persons launched an effort they hope will end the Carter incumbency and put Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the White House.
They did so with loud, bitter attacks on Carter's energy, economic, agriculture and health policies as well as on this state's two top office holders in the Carter administration, Vice President Mondale and Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland.
"We have a very weak-kneed secretary of agriculture, a person who is not willing to stand up for what he believes in. We have a vice president who's interested only in foreign policy," said Charles Kantens, a sugar beet farmer from western Minnesota. "We have a president who we trusted because he was a farmer who is now destroying family farms."
It was the largest draft-Kennedy meeting held to date and attracted representatives from 11 other states and the District of Columbia, giving the drive its first semblance of a national organization. Kennedy has disavowed all such efforts, saying he will not be a candidate in 1980.
Organizers had planned on a larger crowd, predicting anywhere from 300 to 1,000 persons at various times. "I'd hoped for more people," Nolan said. "But this is a vice president's home town. This is a nice sunny day."
The draft-Kennedy drive here, called Minnesotans for a Democratic Alternative, will aim at electing uncommitted delegates in the state's precinct caucuses next Feb. 26, the same day as the New Hampshire presidential primary. The caucuses will be the first step in picking the state's delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Carter has never been particularly popular in Minnesota. Before he picked Mondale as his running mate, he could muster the support of only 37 of the state's 65 delegates to the 1976 Democratic National Convention.
But the draft-Kennedy drive here has been a major embarrassment to Mondale and the Carter White House, and they have moved vigorously to thwart it. Democratic National Chairman John White has led the charge, calling Nolan and four other congressmen who have endorsed the dump-Carter drive party wreckers who are trying to hand over the White House to the Republicans "on a silver platter."
Nolan, a three-term congressman and former Mondale protege, tried to answer this criticism today. "I submit it is time to get out your Democratic platform because if you examine it you will find you're not abandoning President Carter, President Carter is abandoning the Democratic Party," he said in a hall decorated with pro-Kennedy banners.
"Carter has abandoned almost every one of the party's traditional support groups and programs. The American people realize it. They want a change."
People at the meeting at the University of Minnesota were mostly from the liberal wing of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and Nolan's home district in rural north central Minnesota.
Many of them identified themselves more with Eugene McCarthy, the former Minnesota senator who ran as an antiwar presidential candidate in 1968, and Sen. George McGovern, from neighboring South Dakota, than with Mondale.
Mische is a good case in point. He was an antiwar activist who spent 25 months in federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., as a member of the "Catonsville 9," the group which burned Selective Service files in Catonsville, Md., in May 1968.
"The DFL has never been known as a right-wing party," Mische told the crowd today. "And this is really a move to bring the party back to where it belongs."
The other states represented here were California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Dakota.