Ballot Box

Frisky Fritz

Walter Mondale tries to look hip.

The State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis is 81 years old. Its décor—gold trim, columns, statues, balconies flanking the stage, a giant nude mural on the partly domed ceiling—hearkens back centuries. Each row of seats is bordered in that off-white color your grandmother had on her walls. It seems the perfect place to nominate Fritz Mondale.

In theory, the hundreds of members of the State Central Committee of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party—that’s what Minnesotans call their state Democratic Party—are convening here to debate whom to put on the ballot in the U.S. Senate race now that Sen. Paul Wellstone has died in a plane crash. In reality, the game is fixed. Everyone’s known for days that the party wants Mondale. This morning, it leaked the text of a letter in which he affirmed his interest. Before tonight’s meeting, people were out front selling Mondale buttons. There’s as much suspense here as you’ll find at an average wedding.

That’s no guarantee that things will go according to plan. Last night, DFL activists congregated at an arena a few blocks from here for what was supposed to be a memorial service for Wellstone. They’ve been roundly castigated for converting that event into a political rally. The theater they’re in tonight, which was liberated 17 years ago from a religious sect that had covered up its nude art, is a safer place to bare their partisan passion. “As was said last night, we will win,” DFL chairman Mike Erlandson tells the assembled delegates. They chant back, “We will win!’

Erlandson opens the floor to nominations for the Senate seat. Four delegates rise in unison and introduce themselves. It turns out they’re from four different parts of the state, yet each of them is for Mondale. What a coincidence. Everyone stands up and begins shouting, “We want Fritz! We want Fritz!” With the perfunctory nonchalance of a clergyman asking why these two people should not be married, Erlandson asks whether there are any other nominations. “NOOOOO!” shouts the crowd. Erlandson asks who’s in favor of closing the nomination process. “AYE!” answers the crowd.

With that, the groom is summoned. Flanked by Wellstone aides, Mondale appears at the back of the theater. He does not look shocked. Nor does he look frail. This morning, the Republican senatorial nominee, Norm Coleman, dismissed Mondale as the candidate of the past. Tonight’s event has been scripted to make Mondale look spry. A U2 song plays over the sound system as he walks down the aisle, shaking hands. Erlandson joked in his opening remarks that the theater’s operators had put an extra coat of paint on it for the evening. But as Mondale comes closer, it looks like he’s the one wearing fresh paint.

Mondale isn’t a hugger or kisser. He doesn’t even smile much. As he ascends to the podium and accepts the nomination, the physical characteristics he patented in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—the tight lips, the owlish beak, the Methodist stiffness, the chalkboard-scraping voice—return to the national stage. He speaks like an old man. He always did. But he’s got the one important thing Wellstone lacks: He’s still breathing.

Mondale recites his qualifications: He thinks like Wellstone, he knows the state, he knows the Senate, he knows the White House. “I proudly saved—served our country for many years,” he says, correcting himself. He talks about education, science, jobs, the environment, prescription drugs. He rips corporate crime and the Bush tax cut. He says he’s running “because our national politics desperately needs balance.” In other words, he wants to keep the Senate in Democratic hands.

On foreign policy, he goes retro. He calls for more consultation with allies and more cultivation of international goodwill. “That’s the belief that won Jimmy Carter the Nobel Peace Prize,” he says. Somewhere, a focus group of 25- to 34-year-olds is scratching its heads. Jimmy Carter? Wasn’t he the dude who crashed those helicopters in Iran?

As Mondale finishes, his wife, children, and grandchildren join him onstage. The U2 beat resumes. A curtain rises behind him, revealing a regiment of college-age Wellstone volunteers in green shirts and blue jeans. Mondale mingles with them, then crosses the stage to high-five his grandkids. He bends his knees to show the crowd how much he’s getting into it. Go, Grandpa, go.