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."
Thirty years after leaving Minnesota, Franken returned home in late 2005 and began laying the groundwork for the race against Coleman. Franken's outspoken critiques of conservatives -- his mid-1990s book "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot" was a bestseller -- made him a hero among liberal activists. But having never run for office, and having written decades worth of pieces that were funny but sometimes inflammatory, Franken was considered a long shot.
Franken said he believes that his comedic past and his time as a talk-radio host helped attract initial attention to his candidacy, but that to win he will have to demonstrate a grasp of the impact of two wars and a global financial crisis on voters' lives.
"I think the people that are paying attention -- the reason I'm doing so well right now -- they understand that I'm talking about the issues that affect them and that I'm a serious guy," he said in an interview outside the Wagon Wheel.
To that end, Franken campaigned Tuesday as if he were an old farmhand. Sen. Tom Harkin (D), the Agriculture Committee chairman from neighboring Iowa, appeared at the diner to promise Franken a seat on his committee. Franken took notes on a yellow pad as the farmers discussed biofuel production and, in vowing more funding for wind farms, he informed them that the state's 1st Congressional District is the sixth windiest in the nation.
In the spring and summer, Franken was on the defense, dealing with criticism that he failed to pay tens of thousands of dollars in taxes earlier this decade and for writing an article in Playboy that some said was derogatory toward women.
Coleman has dealt with controversy, too. Minnesota Democrats have questioned whether he is getting an unduly favorable deal on his $600-a-month Capitol Hill rental, which is owned by one of his political consultants. The senator said he has only a small bedroom in the apartment and pays a fair amount. And he recently denied allegations that he received free suits from a longtime campaign contributor.
Coleman, who this month pulled his negative advertising, said he hopes voters will consider his background as a prosecutor, city councilman, mayor and senator. He also encourages voters to consider Franken's background.
"What have you done for middle-class families in the state of Minnesota; what have you done in the last 30 years? I can point to 50 things I've done. . . . Tell me one thing. You're running for United States Senate. This is serious -- that's a fair question for folks to ask," Coleman said in an interview after campaigning at Gert and Erma's coffee shop in Glencoe.
But Coleman is struggling to get that message through the anti-Republican mood among Minnesota voters, particularly since the financial markets collapsed and he supported the $700 billion rescue plan. Franken was opposed to the bailout and rails against it on the stump.
In conservative Glencoe, the type of town where Republicans need to do well to offset Democratic strength in cities, Coleman faced heated questions about the bailout. "If I lose this race, it's because of the American economy and voting for a rescue package," he said afterward.
At several stops Monday, Coleman did not mention his party's presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain. A poll this week showed McCain trailing Sen. Barack Obama by almost 20 points in Minnesota. And the only sign of President Bush was a Franken staffer wearing a Bush mask outside a Coleman event in Redwood Falls in southwestern Minnesota, an ever-present attempt by the Democrat's campaign to remind voters of Coleman's once-close ties to the White House.
Even as Franken tries to convince voters he's sincere, the comedian in him still emerges. At a rally Tuesday with 2,000 supporters at the University of Minnesota, he ad-libbed jokes throughout his 20-minute speech and poked fun at Clinton. He urged voters to get "Franken for Senate" bumper stickers, but to not cut off other drivers until the election is over.
Franken then started bantering with the crowd as he recited positive economic statistics from the Clinton White House era, rhetorically asking the audience if they recalled those times. "Vaguely," a man yelled, prompting laughter.
"I'll do the jokes, sir," Franken replied, drawing even more laughs.
After the rally, Ann Jaede, 73, said she had been very hesitant to support Franken in the spring because of "the comedian aspect of it."
Now, Jaede said: "He's become more serious. I think he's taken the edge off. That's his personality. He's made it work for him, not against him."