Coleman calls on GOP to be party of hope and toughness

ROCHESTER - Pledging to bring "people together to get things done," U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman on Friday accepted his party's thunderous endorsement for reelection with a speech that affirmed GOP values and encouraged the party to carry an optimistic message into this year's elections.

Gone was the outright partisan of early in his first term, when Coleman styled himself as a Bush "truth-squadder."

Instead, he highlighted his bipartisan work and said that Republicans need to work to "restore our credibility with the American people."

A Republican party "that can't do fiscal discipline and national security is in trouble," Coleman, 58, told the delegates who endorsed him by acclamation. Echoing a running theme among party activists, he said Republicans must return to the principles that brought them to power -- an unwavering focus on entrepreneurship, smaller government, freer markets, tighter borders and better security.

Without mentioning Al Franken, the front-runner among DFL Senate candidates, Coleman got in a shot.

During his speech, he told delegates that being a senator is "not about being a celebrity or slaying ideological dragons."

Franken and DFLers have made criticism of Coleman's alignment with President Bush their election mantra, saying that Coleman won't be able to run from his record.

Coleman cranked up his own rhetoric later at a news conference, where he attacked Franken's claim that being a satirist was good preparation for the U.S. Senate. "The last thing the U.S. Senate needs is someone who's made a career of mocking people," Coleman said.

In a pointed contrast of their records, Coleman said that "eight years ago I was making the streets of St. Paul safer and he was writing porn." Franken has come under fire from Republicans and some fellow Democrats recently for an explicit sex satire he penned for Playboy in 2000.

Coleman, whose early Senate record hewed closely to Bush, has steadily evolved and now points to several instances where he has parted company with the president. But he knows his audience, and on Friday hit the conservative high notes that GOP faithful wanted to hear.

In literature distributed earlier in the day, Coleman reminded delegates that he was "proud of his unblemished pro-life record," his votes for "strict constructionists" on the U.S. Supreme Court and his continued criticism of the management of the United Nations.

"I'm a partisan in many ways," Coleman said later. "I believe in conservative principles." However, he said, "my entire career has been about bringing people together."

Notable opponents

Few Minnesotans have run against as many notable opponents as Coleman. In the past 10 years, he's faced off against candidates named Humphrey, Ventura, Wellstone and Mondale in two of the most storied elections in state history.

His results were mixed. In the 1998 gubernatorial race, he blew past his old boss in the state attorney general's office, Hubert Humphrey III, only to lose to Jesse Ventura, an unconventional, louder-than-life third-party candidate.

Four years later, Coleman faced an unimaginable dilemma less than two weeks before Election Day: How to win the Senate race in the face of statewide mourning for incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane crash.

Helped by the backlash to what many considered a partisan memorial service, Coleman found a deft balance between expressing respect for the late senator's memory while challenging his political legacy, and narrowly defeated former Vice President Walter Mondale, Wellstone's ballot replacement.

Coleman has "had a pretty successful career," said Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College. "Other than losing the gubernatorial race in 1998, he hasn't lost much."

"His timing, and some of the opponents he's run against -- and then what you might call his ability to shift as needed -- that speaks to his political radar and skill," said Joseph Kunkel, professor of political science at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Coleman started out as a Democrat, working in Humphrey's attorney general's office, then winning a bid for mayor of St. Paul in 1993. A moderate, he faced down more liberal opponents with a pro-business message that emphasized low taxes, safe streets and job creation.

Increasingly an outsider in his own party -- he was sometimes booed at DFL gatherings -- he jumped ship in 1996 and won re-election as a newly minted Republican in an overwhelmingly DFL city. By 1998, he was his party's endorsed nominee for governor.

Slippery or skillful?

The party switch is, for Coleman's detractors, Exhibit A in his reputation, justified or not, for shifting positions. Coleman insists that his views while in the Senate have remained largely consistent, but others note that as time has passed he has been more ready to stake out positions opposite the administration's. He opposed oil drilling in the Arctic, and recently voted to override Bush's veto of the farm bill.

But some argue that flexibility is merely a political skill Coleman possesses.

"Is it bad that a senator is a politician? It's a political role," Kunkel said. "A lot of Democrats -- when they characterize him as a turncoat or a slippery person -- they underestimate him."

Said Hofrenning: "Sometimes the line between selling your soul and deftly putting together a winning coalition can be a narrow one. ... In this year, when the tides are moving Democratic, he has to be favored to win."

The only general election Coleman has lost came when he had to split the vote with two other relative centrists -- Humphrey, considered a moderate DFLer, and Ventura, "a centrist populist," according to Minneapolis-based national political commentator Barry Casselman.

"Norman is by nature a political centrist and this is a centrist state," said Casselman, who has followed Coleman's career since the 1970s. "So the only way you can beat him is ... you have to be a moderate."

plopez@startribune.com • 651-222-1288 kduchschere@startribune.com • 612-673-4455

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