WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., asked Sen. Norm Coleman to apologize on Monday after the Republican senator told a Capitol Hill newspaper that he's "a 99 percent improvement" over his predecessor, the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone.
"To be very blunt and God watch over Paul's soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone," Coleman said in a front-page story published in Roll Call. "Just about on every issue."
Coleman made the remark as he sought to stress his ties to President Bush. He told Roll Call that Wellstone "was never with the president."
McCollum called the remarks inappropriate and disrespectful and said they were "an unnecessary attack on a leader our state continues to mourn."
In a statement released by his office Monday night, Coleman said:
"[Mark] Twain said the problem with talking to the media is they're likely to print what you say. It was my responsibility to be more clear in my remarks to Roll Call. It was my understanding we were comparing my relationship to this White House to the relationship Senator Wellstone had with this White House. I would never want to diminish the legacy or memory of Senator Paul Wellstone, and I will accept full responsibility for not having been more accurate in my comments."
The Roll Call story caused an uproar among Wellstone's former staffers.
Jim Farrell, Wellstone's former spokesman, called it a "shameful, self-serving assertion" from Coleman.
And Jay Howser, a former senior aide, called the remarks "sickening" and said they showed Coleman to be "a selfish, classless" man.
For Coleman to attack Wellstone less than six months after his death "is beyond the believable," he said. "One would think that no U.S. senator would ever stoop to such a disgusting level but today Norm Coleman has."
McCollum said the remarks were hurtful to the Wellstone family and to all Minnesotans who loved Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, both of whom died Oct. 25 in a plane crash.
Saying the 2002 campaign is over and it's "now time for leadership," McCollum called on Coleman to apologize to Wellstone's family and to all Minnesotans.
"Paul Wellstone represented Minnesota families with integrity, respect and passion for 12 years," she said. "Senator Coleman's remarks attacking our late senator were tasteless and do absolutely nothing to benefit the Minnesota families he now serves."
The Roll Call story, headlined "Coleman becomes big draw," noted that Coleman was "an emerging star on the GOP's rubber-chicken circuit." On Friday night, he spoke to Republicans in South Carolina, and since taking office Jan. 7, he has given speeches to Republican gatherings in Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nevada and Missouri.
In the story, Coleman reflected on his election to the Senate and said "there is a lot of anger" still coming from Wellstone forces.
"They lost their champion and they thought something was taken away," he told the newspaper. "All you can do is say, 'Hey, I mourn the loss, but I am here and I am going to do what I think is the right thing to do, and thank God I have a chance to be here.' "
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