If a Hollywood film writer were to submit a script about a campaign and election as bizarre as what has unfolded across the country in recent weeks, it is doubtful any producer would agree to fund the project.
With the U.S. House and Senate so evenly divided and control of both bodies so important, and with the deep bitterness many Democrats have about George W. Bush and his election to the presidency, the scene was set for a tough, mean, nasty election. But few could have predicted the many strange, tragic and ugly twists this election has taken.
First was the situation in New Jersey, where Democratic incumbent Sen. Robert Torricelli was so far behind in the polls he dropped his re-election bid rather than give his Republican challenger an almost certain win. Whether he voluntarily dropped out of the race or was told by party bigwigs to get out is an unanswered question.
Whatever the case, former New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg was pressed into service even though the action was against election laws. It now appears he will be a winner and retain this Senate seat for the Democrats.
However, even with this maneuver, the balance of power in the Senate still was razor thin, and Senate elections in a handful of other states will determine which party will end up holding the prize: control of the Senate and the chairmanships of all the Senate committees.
This being the case, the rancor, intensity and bitterness surrounding the remaining toss-up Senate races became even greater. The race in nearby Missouri between incumbent Sen. Jean Carnahan and challenger Jim Talent offers a good example.
Then came the tragic plane accident last week in Minnesota that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife and daughter, three campaign aides and two pilots. Wellstone was in a tight race with former St. Paul Mayor Norman Coleman.
The Democratic senator was recognized as the Senate's most liberal lawmaker, and prior to the plane crash, many Democrats wanted to keep Wellstone at arm's length rather than be associated with his political philosophy. He marched to a different drummer than most senators, and his fellow Democratic lawmakers were not eager to be on the same campaign platform or be looked to as sharing Wellstone's agenda.
However, as soon as news of the crash spread across the country, most Democratic senators could not say enough good things about the feisty, diminutive two-term lawmaker. By the way, Wellstone had made a pledge to Minnesota voters that he would serve only two terms but found a reason to cancel that pledge and seek a third term.
What was supposed to be a memorial service for Wellstone last Tuesday in Minneapolis turned into a gigantic political rally. A Republican senator attending the "services" was booed and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura said Democrats should be ashamed and embarrassed about the gathering, as well as the behavior of many who attended the event.
It was obvious there was great appreciation by many for what Wellstone had accomplished as a senator, as well as what he stood for, but it was clear Democratic operatives were using Wellstone's death and the service as a tool to fan emotions and fire up Minnesota voters. They seized the service as a means to encourage Democrats throughout the country to make an extra effort to do what they could, in Wellstone's memory, to return all Democratic Senate candidates to Washington.
The senator's death caused state Democratic leaders, as well as those at the national level, to seek a replacement for Wellstone on the ballot. Immediately they turned to former Minnesota senator and vice president Walter Mondale. He was beaten badly in his race for the presidency in 1984 against Ronald Reagan, but he presented the best hope for Minnesota Democrats to hang on to the Senate seat.
First, it was bringing 78-year-old Frank Lautenberg out of retirement to retain the New Jersey seat for Democrats; it was followed by 74-year-old Mondale's coming out of mothballs to try to hold on to the Democratic seat for Minnesota.
A memorial service turning into a political rally, a tragic and deadly plane accident taking the life of a dynamic senator almost two years after a similar crash took the life of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, whose widow was appointed to the U.S. Senate after he was posthumously elected. It all combined to make this a highly unusual and unpredictable campaign and election.
What's likely to happen in the next few days before the elections and what may happen in the days after?
Whether or not this kind of activity, along with the tremendous amount of negative campaigning throughout the country, will turn off the public and lower voter turnout or whether it will energize voters and bring out record numbers is anyone's guess.
There is no way to generalize about elections across the country because most contests have unique circumstances. However, one of the biggest disappointments in many elections is that so few candidates have the courage to shoot straight with the public, face issues head on and say how they intend to attack or solve problems.
When will the public get tired of phony promises, distortions (if not outright lies), the almost unconscionable expenditures of money and less-than-genuine campaign tactics?
There are candidates in both major political parties guilty of such actions and, until these types of campaigns and candidates are rejected, an increasing number of citizens are likely to turn their backs on the election process.
The environment surrounding politics certainly isn't conducive to encouraging properly motivated bright young men and women to enter the political arena.