ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – With the unofficial mourning period for Paul Wellstone over, former Vice President Walter Mondale lifted Democrats’ spirits yesterday by announcing he is ready to run in the senator’s place.

Party representatives were expected to make Mondale’s candidacy official at a meeting in the evening.

“It is with a heavy heart but a great hope for the future that I will pick up the campaign where Paul Wellstone left off,” Mondale wrote in a letter to the state party chairman.

Democrats were jubilant. Mondale, 74, was seen as their best shot at keeping Wellstone’s seat, and Wellstone’s two sons had asked him to make the run.

“They knew that Paul would want someone of integrity and honesty and character to finish this race off,” said Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone’s campaign manager. “Fritz Mondale was the only one on that list.”

Wellstone was killed along with his wife, daughter, three campaign staffers and two pilots in a plane crash Friday in northern Minnesota.

A statewide poll released Wednesday by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis showed Mondale inheriting the slight lead Wellstone had recently opened over Republican Norm Coleman. Mondale had 47 percent support to Coleman’s 39 percent in the poll of 639 likely voters, which was conducted Monday and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

“Paul cannot be replaced,” Mondale wrote in his letter. “No one can. But his passion for Minnesotans and their needs can inspire us to continue the work he began. More than ever, the ordinary working families in our state need a voice, and I will fight for them.”

A rally was planned for Thursday morning to launch a five-day sprint of a campaign.

Coleman wasn’t waiting. Taking aim at his new opponent, he flew to three Minnesota cities and launched new TV commercials Wednesday.

“The challenge for the vice president is what is his vision for the 21st century, how does he expect to get it done,” Coleman said at a campaign stop in International Falls. “Nobody hands you anything.”

Republicans pressed for debates between Mondale and Coleman, but it was unclear whether Mondale would agree.

Meanwhile, organizers of Tuesday night’s memorial service for Wellstone said they regretted the overly partisan tone. Several speakers, including Wellstone’s sons and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, implored the crowd to win Tuesday’s election for Wellstone.

“It probably would have been best not to get into politics and elections in the way it was done,” Blodgett said.

Gov. Jesse Ventura left the memorial angry and said he planned to appoint an independent, instead of a Democrat, to finish Wellstone’s term. He later backed off that, saying only that he was looking at his options.

State GOP Chairman Ron Eibensteiner called the 3 1/2-hour service “raw hardball political campaigning” and said the party has asked broadcasters that covered the service to give Republicans air time “for the sake of basic fairness.”

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