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Hoping to have last laugh in Minnesota

Comedian Al Franken has proved to be a serious contender for GOP Sen. Norm Coleman's seat.

October 26, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Huffstutter is a Times staff writer.

MINNEAPOLIS — The comedian's opening act warmed up the crowd, whose laughter echoed inside the cavernous lobby of the University of Minnesota's McNamara Alumni Center. Then the headliner stepped onto the stage, took the microphone in hand . . . and didn't tell a joke.

Lately, Minnesotans have been seeing a more serious side of comedian Al Franken, one of the original writers for "Saturday Night Live" and author of the book "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot." Nearly two years ago, Franken moved back here to his childhood home and launched his Democratic campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

At first many were unsure whether to take him seriously, and few gave him much of a chance. Indeed, polls last spring showed Coleman leading by as much as 22 points.

But now, Franken has pulled slightly ahead of Coleman, and the two are embroiled in one of the most prominent and expensive Senate races of this election season.

The candidates themselves have spent more than $30 million combined on their runs for the seat -- paying for ads that paint Coleman as a flip-flopper on issues and a strong fan of President Bush and that portray Franken as an inexperienced candidate with questionable tax problems and a penchant for vulgar satire.

Millions more has been spent on political advertising by their national parties, which also has encouraged a string of high-profile figures to come out and support either Coleman (Bush, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani) or Franken (former Vice President Al Gore, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton).

Even Garrison Keillor, host of "A Prairie Home Companion," has jumped into the mix: He has a Franken campaign sign on his front lawn in St. Paul and has given his friend political advice.

All this comes at a time when Democrats, who have a bare majority in the Senate, hope to pick up enough seats Nov. 4 to be able to prevent Republican filibusters. Thirty-five seats are up for grabs -- 23 of them held by Republicans -- and Democrats need to gain nine to reach a filibuster-proof majority of 60.

"The Democrats want to get to 60 seats, and they can't get there without Al Franken winning," said Mary-Sarah Kinner, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"Out of all the Senate races, everyone agrees that the Minnesota seat is one everyone wants."

Neither party's senatorial candidate has had a smooth run-up to election day.

Coleman took office as mayor of St. Paul, the state capital, in 1994 as a Democrat, but became a Republican during his tenure. He left office in 2002 when he was elected to the Senate.

As a senator, his votes were closely tied to the White House during his first year, when he supported the president's agenda 98% of the time, according to research conducted by Congressional Quarterly.

But by 2004, his support had begun to wane, according to CQ: While he continued to back Bush's tax cuts, he started to side with Democrats on issues such as higher-education funding and financial assistance with home heating bills for the poor.

"There are issues in this country that are bigger than what one party can solve," Coleman said at a rally in Bloomington, Minn., last week. "These are serious times and need serious candidates."

Coleman's past support of a now-unpopular president has hurt him in the polls. So have allegations by Minnesota Democrats that he accepted free shopping sprees from a campaign contributor at the same Neiman Marcus in downtown Minneapolis where the GOP reportedly bought campaigning clothes for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Coleman has denied the charges.

"It's the case of a fairly popular Republican now swimming upstream against the national Democratic wave," said Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. "In this environment, even a flawed or inexperienced candidate can ride the wave and might win."

As for Franken, friends say the longtime political satirist began seriously considering seeking office after the death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. The two-term Democrat, a friend of Franken, died in a plane crash 11 days before the 2002 election against Coleman. (Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale was hastily nominated to fill the Democratic slot in the election. Coleman won.)

But early in his candidacy, Franken was on the defensive for months after it became public that he hadn't paid workers' compensation or disability premiums for employees at his New York-based company from 2002 through 2005.

Franken blamed his accountant for these mistakes and others and said he had overpaid taxes in Minnesota and New York -- but failed to pay taxes in 17 other states where he had worked. He paid $70,000 in back taxes and penalties in April.

The satirist also was heavily criticized for a 2000 story he wrote for Playboy. The piece, which described sexual acts at a fictional virtual-reality sex lab in Minnesota, was called offensive and politically problematic by fellow Democrats.

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