Wellstone forms exploratory committee for presidential race

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Paul Wellstone is setting up a campaign organization, but he says he’s still months away from deciding whether he’s going to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.
The Minnesota Democrat announced Wednesday that he was forming an exploratory committee to build campaign organizations in key states and to pay for a stepped-up travel schedule.
“I’m excited about doing this,” Wellstone said. “I’m very committed to it. There are a whole set of issues that I want to be on the table.”
He goes to Iowa next week to speak to groups of Democratic Party activists and will be in New Hampshire April 24-26.
Linda Marson, Wellstone’s press secretary, will take over as the presidential committee’s political director later this month.
Wellstone said he expects to decide by this fall whether to declare his candidacy.
“I can’t make a final decision until I go into the states and ask people for help, see what kind of organization I can put together and see how people are responding,” Wellstone said. “I’m willing to take on the odds but I won’t do it unless it’s an all-out effort to win.”
While he is considered a long shot, the former college professor is skilled at organizing young people and liberal activists, much like another Minnesota senator, Eugene McCarthy, did in 1968 when he embarrassed then-President Johnson with a strong showing in New Hampshire.
Wellstone, one of the most liberal members of Congress, has harshly criticized President Clinton and Vice President Gore for moving toward the center. Wellstone is portraying his potential candidacy as a battle for the Democratic Party’s soul.
He also said there would be “clear differences” between himself and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, considered the strongest challenger to Gore for the party’s 2000 nomination.
Money is certain to be one of Wellstone’s chief hurdles.
The 53-year-old, who has been an outspoken critic of the campaign finance system, will accept contributions from both individuals and political action committees, Marson said today.
During his Senate campaigns he had limited himself to taking money from PACs that were based in Minnesota or had Minnesota contributors. During his 1996 campaign he was criticized by Republicans for soliciting contributions from wealthy Democratic backers on the East Coast and in California.
“Paul’s not going to be leading the pack financially. We need the resources to build grass-roots organizations in key states,” Marson said.
Wellstone has been traveling and making speeches regularly over the past year and paying for the trips from his Senate office budget and from a political action committee he formed last year.
His office budget is restricted to Senate business, and the PAC is more restrictive in how he can spend the money than the new committee he has established.