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CURWOOD: Paul Wellstone of Minnesota is one of the most liberal voices in the United States Senate. He's up for reelection this year and Republicans see it as one of their opportunities to knock out a Democrat, regain the majority, and control debate in the upper chamber of Congress.
In an echo of the Bush/Gore/Nader 2000 campaign, Mr. Wellstone faces Norm Coleman, a formidable Republican challenger, and Ray Tricomo, a Green Party candidate who's peeling votes away. Minnesota Public Radio's Mary Stucky reports.
[SOUND OF WATER]
STUCKY: Minnesota is called the land of 10,000 lakes. Though the weather is fierce much of the year, it seems like almost everyone here is hunter, fisherman or other sports enthusiast.
STUCKY: There are conflicts over water and woods, too. How many motors should be in the wilderness? How many trees should come out? In his 12 years in office, Senator Paul Wellstone has tried to build a bridge ?the so-called Blue-Green Coalition, blue for labor and green for the environment. That coalition is out in force this election and recently rallied in Duluth on the shore of Lake Superior.
STUCKY: These voters are not deterred by Wellstone's stand against the president's policy in Iraq, or by the fact that Wellstone went back on his promise not to run for a third term. They're drawn to Wellstone for his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and for his strong environmental positions, like support of stricter drinking water standards.
WELLSTONE: Thank you. We want a fair trade policy where we have a new global economy that works for workers, works for environmentalists, works for the environment, works for family farmers, works for our children, works for safe food. That is the world economy that we fight for and that we speak for.
STUCKY: Aware that the challenge to Wellstone is serious, environmental groups are pouring money into the race. The Sierra Club just sent their national president to Minnesota to unveil an advertising blitz reminding voters of Wellstone's environmental record.
ADVERTISMENT: Paul Wellstone sponsored legislation to protect our water from animal waste, and voted to protect our national monuments from drilling and mining.
STUCKY: The League of Conservation Voters, the most prominent Green ranking group, gives Wellstone a 100 percent rating for his Senate voting record. Wellstone's Republican opponent is Norm Coleman, an attorney and former mayor of St. Paul. Coleman is trying to use Wellstone's record against him.
COLEMAN: I don't want to have a 100 percent rating with any special interest group. I run against the most partisan person in the U.S. Senate, the most ideologically driven. If you vote for me, you bring someone with a sense of how do we work together, and in the end gets stuff done.
STUCKY: Coleman is fondly remembered by many voters for reviving business in downtown St. Paul. People also credit him with bringing professional hockey back to Minnesota. His focus on economic growth is part of, what Coleman calls, a wise use balance between creating jobs and protecting the environment. And it's what he stressing on the campaign trail.
COLEMAN: Give me your vote on November 5 and I will work for you. I work in a way that brings people together, that gets things done, that enhances this great opportunity we have in America, which is called freedom. And I'll be on your side working sure that we have it forever. Thank you very much.
STUCKY: That message appeals to this group, the Minnesota Motorcycle Riders Association, [MOTORCYCLE REVVING] who roared into Medina, Minnesota on a beautiful fall Saturday for their so-called Freedom Rally. Bikers like Gordy Shoemahker liked what they saw.
SHOEMAHKER: I want a candidate who is open, flexible, receptive. And he is, I think.
STUCKY: In July, Coleman may have misstepped when he seemed to endorse motor- boating and snowmobiling in a much loved wilderness here, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. At one time, this was a bitterly divisive issue, pitting environmentalists against outdoor business interests. And some saw Coleman as reopening an old wound. Coleman says, he was misunderstood.
COLEMAN: The BWCA is pristine. It needs to remain pristine. I have never questioned that.
STUCKY: But Coleman says he is logging some trees in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. A powerful windstorm toppled hundreds of thousands of trees, and Coleman says he would support logging to protect the wilderness from fire.
COLEMAN: Well, Senator and I disagree on that, and we've just got to hope and pray, hope and pray, that nothing happens. I don't want to see what happened in Arizona and Colorado and California happen here.
STUCKY: Coleman is opposed to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but he does support most of the Bush energy plan which expands drilling for oil and gas. Wellstone, on the other hand, refers to oil and gas interests as polluters, and says he wants 20 percent of all energy to come from renewable sources by 2010.
WELLSTONE: The oil companies, and a lot of the polluters, and a lot of the big economic interests have poured a couple of hundred thousand dollars into the state. Geez, they haven't given me one cent. But that's okay, I don't represent Exxon. I mean, I represent people in Minnesota.
STUCKY: Polls show most voters have made up their minds in the race, and that it's a statistical dead heat. That leaves Wellstone and Coleman trying to change voters' minds. And the minds Wellstone would love to change belong to supporters of the Green Party.
To the fierce annoyance of some its members, the Green Party is running a candidate, Ray Tricomo. Tricomo is unapologetic, saying this is the only way to build a party. And Wellstone's green record is inadequate.
TRICOMO: I don't think he's been nearly strong enough on any issue. Our species may not survive as a species at the rate things are going. We need to make the environment the number one priority in this country, and I don't think Senator Wellstone is willing to go that far.
STUCKY: Tricomo calls himself a radical ecologist, but has few specific criticisms of Wellstone's environmental record. In Minnesota, the Greens have major party status and polled just over five percent in the last presidential election. Tricomo is polling below that, less than two percent. Nevertheless, many Greens fear Tricomo will cost Wellstone the election. Greg Harmon is a member of the group Greens for Wellstone.
HARMON: The main concern is that the Senate will go over to a party that has absolutely no interest in the direction of government that Greens support. This is likely. So, Wellstone's continued presence in the Senate is our best bet of keeping things more the way we like them.
STUCKY: Harmon rejects comparing this race with the last presidential elections, saying Wellstone is a stronger environmental candidate than Al Gore was.
HARMON: He is probably the most environmental senator we have. And how could we see sacrificing that? It doesn't seem to make sense.
STUCKY: No one in Minnesota claims that the environment is the number one factor in this race, but every issue matters when a race is too close to call and the result could change the balance of the United States Senate.
For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Stucky, in St. Paul.
[MUSIC: Balaio, "The Girls Colors" BASKET (Malandro, 2001)]
Paul Wellstone for Senate Norm Coleman for Senate Ray Tricomo for Senate