With Democrats deep in mourning for one of their best-loved Senators, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, senior party officials were yesterday quietly courting Walter Mondale, the 74-year-old former vice president and one-time presidential candidate, to take his place in a nail-bitingly close mid-term election that is just 10 days away.
Mr Wellstone, who died with his wife and daughter in a plane crash on Friday, had been running neck- and-neck with his Republican challenger, Norm Coleman. With control of the Senate hanging on a knife-edge, the Democrats scarcely had time to grieve before being forced to cast around for a replacement.
Consensus centred surprisingly quickly on Mr Mondale who, like Mr Wellstone, is an old-fashioned liberal populist. Mr Mondale was previously a Minnesota senator from 1964 to 1976, a period when populism, ardent unionism and energetic support for civil rights was in the ascendant in state politics.
Mr Mondale, who has a law practice in Minneapolis but is in effect semi-retired, gave some indication that he might interested, appearing at a news conference beside another famously liberal Senator, Edward Kennedy, who happened to be in Minnesota on a campaigning tour when Mr Wellstone's private plane went down in a wooded area near a rural airport.
"I think if Paul were here, he would want us to think about one thing – to carry on the fight he led with such courage and vigilance for all these years," Mr Mondale said. "We intend to do that." He declined to ask specific questions about his intentions, saying he wanted to take the time to grieve first, but also did nothing to indicate any reluctance to stand.
Mr Wellstone, who was 58, was a hero to liberals and the American left for his willingness to risk unpopularity for his progressive opinions. He was one of only a handful of congressmen willing to challenge the Bush administration's drive for war against Iraq, and just about the only Jew in Congress willing to express scepticism about Israel.
Mr Mondale's views are not far removed, but he is also an emblem of the demise of American liberalism following his spectacular failure to unseat Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential race.
It was not clear yesterday whether his – or another replacement's – name would appear on the ballot in Mr Wellstone's place, or whether Minnesota would follow the model established in Missouri two years ago, when Democrats were asked to vote for Mel Carnahan, a candidate who also died in a plane crash unnervingly close to election day. Mr Carnahan went on to beat his opponent, Republican John Ashcroft, and his place in the Senate was taken by his wife, Jean.
Political analysts debated yesterday whether the death might make the Minnesota seat more or less vulnerable for Democrats. They also speculated whether it might, by association, make Jean Carnahan's re-election bid in Missouri a little easier.
Both seats are vital for the Democrats, who for the past 18 months have controlled the Senate by 50 seats to 49.