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Mitchell: cool, reasoned, sincere. New Senate majority leader known for holding to convictions

George Mitchell has made a career of beating the odds. When Maine's venerable Sen. Edmund Muskie was appointed Secretary of State in May 1980, Mr. Mitchell was appointed to replace him.

No one thought the new Democratic senator would last very long: Mitchell had never won an election and, two years later, would have to run for reelection against a well-liked, better-known former GOP congressman. But Mitchell ran a steady campaign and won with 61 percent of the vote.

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Two years after that victory, Mitchell was tapped to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Republicans controlled the Senate and boasted a popular President who was ready to stump for GOP candidates. But Mitchell plowed ahead, raised money, and exhorted promising Democrats to run.

During the next election, in 1986, the Democrats recaptured the Senate and carved out a solid 55-seat majority.

This year, Mitchell announced his candidacy for the Senate majority leader's post being vacated by Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. The Maine senator was always considered a bit of a darkhorse, running for the post against two more senior colleagues in an institution that venerates seniority.

His prospect of victory seemed to shrink even further after the defeat of Michael Dukakis, when, the thinking went, Northeastern liberals of Mitchell's stripe would have a hard time winning much of anything in the party.

But Mitchell won anyway.

Indeed, his margin over his two competitors, Sen. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, was so overwhelming that, in a symbolic gesture, they moved to make his victory unanimous. And by the time Senate Democrats finished electing their new leader Tuesday, even those who had opposed Mitchell's bid were eager to sing his praises. ``Clearly, Mitchell won not because of ideology,'' states Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, who supported the candidacy of Senator Johnston. ``Mitchell won because he's Mitchell.''

Before Mitchell became a senator, he was a federal district court judge, and he brings the measured temperament needed for that job with him into the crucible of Senate politics. And, on the campaign trail and in the Senate, he has won a reputation as a careful tactician and a fair-minded conciliator.

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He has also made a name for himself as a person with solidly liberal convictions who, if necessary, is willing to endure repeated defeats to defend them. As a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he has been one of the most vocal critics of Reagan administration environmental policies, particularly when the policy concerns acid rain.

Mitchell has repeatedly - and, thus far, unsuccessfully - attempted to run a bill through Congress to limit acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants. Meanwhile, he has spent years trying to broker a deal with lawmakers from soft coal-producing states that would allow an acid rain bill to pass.

Moreover, as a Senate Finance Committee member, Mitchell has been in thick of the health, welfare, and tax reform debates that have dominated the congressional agenda over the past few years. Here, too, he has shown a willingness to stick to his convictions, even unto defeat.

For example, in 1986, he worked closely with Finance Committee Republicans to produce a tax reform bill that would flatten tax rates and eliminate preferences. But when he decided that the bill would flatten tax rates too much, he introduced a plan to make those rates more progressive. His proposal was easily defeated, though Mitchell later won favorable tax treatment for low-income housing investments.

Mitchell has also won a reputation as an effective television presence. Owlish and professorial, Mitchell might not seem particularly telegenic. But his televised appeals for Democratic positions have played well with Democrats. On the air, as in life, Mitchell comes across as cool, reasoned, and sincere, and his party colleagues see in Mitchell just the sort spokesman they need to help win the American public over to their point of view.

Perhaps the most dramatic display of his communications skills came during last year's congressional investigation of the Iran-contra affair. In nationally televised hearings an ensuing groundswell of public support for Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North left many lawmakers reluctant to challenge Colonel North too sharply.

Except for a few, including Mitchell. After North pleaded that Congress not abandon the Nicaraguan contras ``for the love of God and the love of country,'' Mitchell responded: ``However important and noble an objective ... it cannot be achieved at the expense of the rule of law in our country,'' Mitchell intoned. ``Although he is regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics.''

The performance so impressed one Republican panel member that, as he left the hearings that day, he whispered to a bystander ``George Mitchell for President.''

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