Comedian Becomes Serious Contender

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been campaigning in Minnesota with U.S. Senate hopeful Al Franken.
Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been campaigning in Minnesota with U.S. Senate hopeful Al Franken. (By Cory Ryan -- Getty Images)
By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2008

MANKATO, Minn. -- Al Franken settled into the Wagon Wheel Cafe and for 45 uninterrupted minutes talked with a handful of Minnesota farmers about the promise of cellulosic ethanol, the impact of the sinking dollar on crop prices and his pledge to secure a seat on the Agriculture Committee if he is elected to the U.S. Senate.

Then the Democrat worked the diner crowd, shaking hands and asking for support like a seasoned statesman, betraying no hint that he was once a longtime writer and actor on "Saturday Night Live" and a sharp-tongued liberal talk-radio host.

Nevertheless, after Franken left, Jodi Dickey dismissed his candidacy, saying it was "like Tina Fey running for office." But then the undecided voter thought a bit more about the state of the country and reconsidered. "Actually, maybe that's not such a bad idea."

The political climate this year is such that Franken -- best known for starring in an "SNL" skit in which his character stares into a mirror and attempts to reassure himself that, doggone it, people like him -- has pulled ahead in his Senate race against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

Just weeks ago, Coleman appeared to be headed for victory, one of a handful of Republicans expected to win in a tough year for the GOP. But then a bad economy turned grim, the public's faith in Congress cratered, and support for Franken started to grow. The latest poll, a University of Wisconsin survey that came out Thursday, showed Franken ahead of Coleman 40 percent to 34 percent, his biggest lead of the race. Independent Dean Barkley was favored by 15 percent of those surveyed.

As the race has tightened, its importance nationally has increased greatly. Leaders of both parties see the contest as one of a critical few that will determine whether Democrats win a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate, so both parties are directing high-profile supporters and millions of dollars to Minnesota.

Officials at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, fearful of a union-friendly Democratic Senate, have dubbed the race "ground zero" in the effort to stop a 60-seat majority. The chamber and its affiliates have spent more than $3 million on ads designed to scare voters about Franken and Democrats, according to sources on both sides.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is on the air with an ad called "Character," in which Franken's past satirical work is attacked for allegedly demeaning women and minorities. An angry Franken is shown on a blood-red screen, pumping his fist at a political rally.

On Franken's side has been Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has campaigned with him and appears in one of his latest ads. Last month former vice president Al Gore headlined a Franken rally, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has run more than $6 million worth of advertisements, almost all accusing Coleman of being a close ally of the Bush White House, according to an estimate from a Democratic source monitoring media purchases.

On the campaign trail, the race is largely about Franken, with the Democrat trying to convince voters he is a serious candidate and Coleman attempting to cast him as too inexperienced and insincere to help solve their problems.

"Serious times require serious leadership," Coleman told two dozen voters Monday in Glencoe, a conservative town about 45 miles from the Twin Cities.

Franken, 57, grew up in St. Louis Park outside Minneapolis and moved to New York in the mid-1970s to begin his career as a comedy writer for "Saturday Night Live," for which he won five Emmys. By the 1980s he was appearing on the show as Stuart Smalley, a self-help guru who became the linchpin of the 1995 film "Stuart Saves His Family."

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