WASHINGTON - Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, locked in a tough reelection battle, is one of several lawmakers facing a difficult moral and political decision as Congress moves toward a possible vote on the question of taking military action against Iraq.
''You get me in a debate about health care or corporate corruption, and I'm real clear on what I believe is right,'' Wellstone said on Thursday. ''But in this area, whether we should send young people in harm's way, it's very hard to figure out what's right.''
After earlier asserting that he had the authority to launch a military strike against Iraq, President Bush on Wednesday pledged to seek congressional approval before taking such action and said he would like a vote to occur before lawmakers recess next month. That timetable, which Congress may not follow, would compel lawmakers such as Wellstone, a Democrat, to cast a politically sensitive vote just weeks before Election Day.
Wellstone, first elected to the Senate in 1990 and reelected in 1996, has developed a reputation in his home state as an unabashed liberal who is unafraid to buck his party on issues. Supporters love his idealism; opponents derisively call him ''Saint Paul.''
His reputation among supporters raises voter expectations of him, Wellstone said.
''My decision can't be a political one - not from me,'' the senator said.
His Republican opponent, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, has already sought to portray Wellstone as soft on national defense, pointing out several votes he cast against military spending.
A poll conducted by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis late last month indicated that 54 percent of Minnesota residents favored military action against Iraq. Nearly 70 percent said they approve to some degree of Bush's handling of the international campaign against terrorism. The president's job approval in the state also remains high, at 64 percent.
Wellstone did not get 51 percent of the vote in either of his previous Senate races. Polls in the state have shown him running even with Coleman. Wellstone is below 50 percent of the vote in those surveys, a dangerous area for a well-known incumbent, pollsters say.
So any vote on military action against Iraq could have a major impact on the race.
Wellstone, like many of his colleagues in Congress, said that at this point Bush has not made the case for military action against Iraq. ''I don't know what the situation is,'' he said. ''We don't have all of the information.''
Leslie Kupchella, press secretary for Coleman's campaign, said he agrees that the case has not yet been made for military action against Iraq. She added, however, that Coleman feels that ''once the president has made his case, it is extremely important that the American people rally around the president.''
Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., said a vote on Iraq would result in Wellstone angering some important part of his constituency at a time when he needs every vote he can get. Green Party candidate Ed McGaa is challenging Wellstone from the left, while Coleman is squeezing him on the right.
''If he votes for [military action] he has problems on his left,'' Schier said. ''If he votes against the use of force, then Coleman has an issue. Coleman would tie it to other military votes Paul has taken.''
Not long after his surprising victory over Republican Rudy Boschwitz in 1990, Wellstone voted against the Persian Gulf War. (The resolution passed, 52 to 47.) His argument then was blunt. ''I do not believe the administration has made the case to go to war,'' he said. ''And if I apply this standard to my children, then I have to apply this standard to everyone's children. I have to apply this standard to all of God's children.''
That vote hurt Wellstone back in Minnesota. After President George H. W. Bush called for a cease-fire, polls in Minnesota showed that a majority of residents disapproved of the way Wellstone was handling his job.
Time healed that wound, however. By the time Wellstone ran for reelection, voters had once again embraced his willingness to go against the grain.
Schier, however, said there could be one big difference between the vote against the Gulf War and a possible vote on military action against Iraq - time. If Congress does vote next month on military action against Iraq, Wellstone might have weeks - not years - to help voters understand why he voted the way he did. ''His vote would require explanation,'' Schier said. ''And any time you're explaining, you're losing ground. You'd rather be saying what's wrong with your opponent.''
sident Roosevelt faced prior to World War II. It is a big moment, and the words will definitely matter.''
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